The cricket at Cheltenham last week was reassuringly old–fashioned. In the last session of the fourth day, Gloucestershire’s bowlers took a flurry of wickets to beat Middlesex by 164 runs, watched by spectators who assemble at the college ground each July from all over England to renew a much-loved ritual. ‘Proper cricket,’ said a chap from Slad.
They were joined, as ever, by dozens of retired cricketers, fed and watered in one of the tents which ring this most evocative of grounds. Little wonder those former players choose to hold their annual gathering in Cheltenham. Here they can bear witness to championship cricket as they once played it; a traditional sport matured over 150 years of custom. The Cheltenham festival is almost a definition of England in high summer.
Prepare for the great schism. Next week a new tournament called The Hundred arrives, trailing clouds of glory, at least in the eyes of its backers at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which has thrown its war chest at a venture designed quite deliberately to attract a younger, urban and more ‘diverse’ crowd. What’s not to like? Everything.
Instead of the ‘over’, that familiar sequence of six balls bowled by one person, which punctuates the game, there will now be ten lots of ten balls, counted down from 100. Apparently the idea of an over was so off-putting to young folk brought up on football that it had to go. Similarly, the batsman is now called a ‘batter’, and third man, a fielding position, has become ‘third’. We don’t want to be thought sexist, do we?
The players, drawn by lots last autumn, will represent not the 18 first-class county clubs rooted in ancestral loyalties (Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, Worcestershire) but eight city franchises based at the established Test match grounds in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester, as well as Cardiff and Southampton. So if Sir Ian Botham, the greatest English cricketer of the past 50 years, was active today he would not play for Somerset but for something called Welsh Fire, an absurd amalgamation of Glamorgan, Somerset and Gloucestershire.
Conceived in 2017, and delayed for a year by Covid, The Hundred was sold to the 18 counties as a commercial boon that would attract a different audience and, in the horrible modern vernacular, ‘grow’ the game. Cricket, in its traditional form, is perceived by its governors as the province of ageing conservatives, so, in the spirit of radicals every-where, they decided that something had to be done. Those counties will be richer by £1.3 million a year for five seasons, which in some cases will keep the wolf from the door.
Cricket, in fact, has moved with the times. In 1963 the Gillette Cup saw matches of 65 (later 60) overs a side. In 1969 the Sunday League was played over 40 overs, and in 2003 the children’s entertainment known as Twenty20 came in to much hoopla. Coloured kit, floodlights, fireworks to celebrate wickets, loud intrusive music: cricket has borrowed them all.
The Hundred, however, is a real departure. It is the first time in the history of sport that the people entrusted with the responsibility of running a game have created something entirely new for the notional benefit of spectators who have shown no interest. It is a conscious act of self-abasement, dressed up as ‘development’, so that television producers can squeeze it into their evening schedules.
A game which used to be admired for the restraint of its followers will be marketed as a tribal summer alternative to football. Older cricket-lovers have observed with horror the behaviour of spectators at T20 matches, which have become beery jamborees. Last month at Edgbaston the Warwickshire club invited students to attend a T20 match as an end-of-term jape, and were appalled when hundreds took them at their word and invaded the playing area. What did they expect?
It will be marketed as great fun. There will be pop singers and — of course — rappers to jolly things along, and the BBC coverage will be led by Isa Guha, an un-repentant giggler known as ‘Guha-ha’, who clearly sees herself as the Eddie Waring de nos jours. The Hundred will resemble It’s a Knockout more than sport, and no matter who wins or loses it will be considered a thumping success because the ECB has invested so much time, money and hope in the enterprise.
For the next six weeks there will be no championship cricket at the height of summer. That cannot be a triumph. It is a self-willed deprivation; a denial of what makes England truly English. As Larkin wrote, all we can hope to leave them now is money.
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