This town ain't big enough for the both of us. That was the conclusion drawn by some after the inaugural season of the Hundred last year; that for all the T20 Blast's success in its 19 seasons, the advent of a new competition with a huge marketing budget and commercial backing rendered it useless.
"My personal view (hard hat at the ready) is that given the overwhelming success of the Hundred, the Blast should now be discontinued," tweeted Harry Gurney, the former England seamer who was part of the BBC's commentary team during the Hundred. Few joined him in saying so publicly, but many shared his sentiments in private.
But as the Blast enters its 20th season, the big-picture question is not about one competition superseding the other but about how they can coexist. Clearly, they are an odd couple: the county game is financially dependent on ECB distributions - which include £1.3 million a year as part of the agreement to introduce the Hundred - while the Hundred cannot take place without the players and stadia which the counties provide.
This summer will be the first real test as to whether there is appetite for two men's short-form competitions in England and Wales, after attendances were limited by Covid restrictions for the vast majority of last summer's Blast. Some counties have reported slower sales than anticipated: the competition starts two weeks earlier this year than in 2021, and the fixture list was published two months later than usual due to uncertainty over the schedule.
"We're tracking to get back to somewhere near where we were in 2019," Neil Snowball, the ECB's managing director of county cricket, told the BBC last week. "We've got some pretty ambitious targets for the Blast this year, it being the 20th anniversary. If we can get up to that level, it would be a pretty incredible year after two years of hiatus in between."
At this stage, it seems like an optimistic prediction. The Hundred's ticket-pricing strategy has been admirable in one sense, cutting prices to make the tournament as accessible as possible, but an unintended consequence has been to undercut the price of Blast tickets: the cheapest available adult ticket costs £24 for Hampshire vs Gloucestershire at the Ageas Bowl in the Blast but some are on sale for £16 for Southern Brave's double-header against Manchester Originals in the Hundred.
The ECB were keen to highlight the younger, more diverse profile of ticket-buyers at the Hundred and the arrival of new fans - but it remains to be seen if they will be drawn to county fixtures too. "The early signs are that people who attended the Hundred are also attending the Blast this year," Snowball said, while acknowledging that "we'll get a much better sense of that this year".
Perhaps the Blast's biggest problem as a competition is its sheer scale, with 126 group games packed into a five-and-a-half week block which also contains two rounds of County Championship fixtures. Sky Sports, the rights holders, can only televise a small fraction of them and the sheer volume of fixtures means that many storylines are lost to those who are not there to witness them in-person.
In 2019, AB de Villiers smoked nine sixes in 35 balls for Middlesex against Somerset but only the 4,000 or so fans at Old Deer Park witnessed it live. "If it's not on TV, did it really happen?" administrators often ask rhetorically; most counties have invested heavily in their live-streaming services but viewing figures suggest their appeal is generally restricted to hardcore supporters.
Counties rely heavily on Blast fixtures for income, both in terms of ticket sales - which far outstrip those for other formats - and commercial revenue, though with the tournament squeezed by the Hundred's August window, most teams face the prospect of playing midweek fixtures this year.
The schedule has been uneven for several seasons, with nine teams per group playing 14 fixtures each. It would be no surprise for Andrew Strauss' high-performance review to recommend reverting to a format with three regionalised groups of six, with a full home-and-away schedule: each county would lose two home games but would be able to target marketing and avoid the unglamorous Monday and Tuesday-night slots which have proved a hard sell.
Players are relieved that this year's schedule at least sees the Blast's knockout stages played immediately after the end of the group, after a five-week hiatus last summer. "We came back to play in the quarter-finals and we had lost all our momentum," Nottinghamshire's Samit Patel recalled. "I'm happier now it's in a block: it's done and dusted by mid-July and that's way better."
The biggest tension at the heart of the debate around the two tournaments' futures is the split between those counties who host Hundred games at their home grounds and those who do not, one which was exacerbated further when the ECB doubled-down on the decision to stage women's fixtures as double-headers with men's games rather than taking them to smaller venues.
In the women's game, there are no great concerns about the professional schedule: the women's domestic T20 competition, the Charlotte Edwards Cup, is a short, sharp competition with six group games per team and few commercial pressures, providing players with opportunities in a lower-stakes competition before the arrival of overseas players and heightened scrutiny presents a step-up in the Hundred.
But in the men's, in Snowball's words: "some counties and some venues have got an oversupply and some have got an undersupply." Taunton, for example, will host only four games in August, all featuring a weakened Somerset side in the Royal London Cup; Emirates Old Trafford, by contrast, hosts four Hundred matchdays, two RLC games and an England men's Test match against South Africa in the same window.
From a playing perspective, the co-existence of two short-form competitions is a huge positive for England's white-ball depth: players involved in both the Blast and the Hundred will play 22 games of short-form cricket every summer even if their teams are knocked out in the group stages.
Blast form is the main guide for coaches and analysts drafting Hundred teams and eight players are selected as Hundred 'wildcards' at the end of the Blast's group stages, rewarding them for their performances and providing an additional incentive. Last year, Jake Lintott signed for Southern Brave after an impressive Blast and was their leading wicket-taker as they won the competition; while counties may resist losing more players at short notice, plans to turn another £30,000 draft pick into a second wildcard spot have been discussed.
The quality of overseas players in the Blast has been aided by the Hundred, too: Sunil Narine has never played for a county and Kieron Pollard has not since 2011 but both were picked up by London teams in the Hundred draft and opted to extend their summers in the UK by signing for Surrey, too.
"The Hundred has probably helped us get them over," Ollie Pope said. "It's great for the standard of the Blast, having guys like that involved." A number of overseas players at other counties without Hundred contracts have entered the overseas 'wildcard' draft on June 9 and are hoping to push their case for selection by starting the T20 season strongly.
The dual system has worked well in India and Pakistan, where the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the National T20 Cup have given players the opportunity to impress and be fed into the IPL and the PSL respectively. Australia's talent pool is smaller due to the lack of a national competition beneath the BBL - teams plucked players from grade cricket during Covid outbreaks last season - and Pollard voiced his frustrations at the fact the CPL is the only region-wide T20 tournament in the Caribbean during his tenure as West Indies captain.
But how will the high-performance review square the benefits of a dual short-form system with a multitude of other demands? Players want fewer games and for the best in the country to play 50-over cricket, while ensuring the Blast remains "an elite competition", the Hundred is "central" and more Championship games are played at the height of summer.