Cricket has long had an uneasy relationship with innovation. The notion of change within the game has rarely been welcomed with open arms, and in many ways, it has been a proudly anti-modern sport.
Many of those who watch it do so for its quirky traditions; five-day matches, white flannels and tea breaks provide them with a reassuring vision of a bygone era. Modernisms such as names and numbers emblazoned on the back of shirts are anathema to cricket’s purists, protective as they are over its impenetrable idiosyncrasies. Despite that, cricket has always found a way to evolve.
In fact, a look through the annals illustrates a recurring pattern when it comes to change in cricket, which invariably goes something like this: innovation, outrage, improvements and, belatedly, popular accord.
Take Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, for instance, which The Guardian’s John Arlott labelled “a circus that posed a grave threat to Test cricket” upon its inception in 1977. In wider cricket circles it was routinely denigrated as ‘Packerball’ and ‘Pyjama Cricket.’
Yet, as revealed in The Cricket War, Gideon Haigh’s forensic account of the WSC years, the pioneering new format helped revolutionise cricket in a way that the early sceptics could not foresee.
On the field it saw the introduction of helmets, coloured kits, and night matches played with white balls – a precursor to modern day One-Day Internationals. Off the field, players were better remunerated, more women and children came to watch, and the TV broadcast improved immeasurably. Much of the game presentation so familiar to us today – stump mics, enhanced camera angles and mid-game graphics – can be traced back to WSC.
Packer had turned cricket into an accessible entertainment spectacle. As the late, great Tony Greig said: “Cricket the world over, I don’t think, will ever know how different things would be without Kerry Packer.”
And Greig was not the only one to understand Packer’s influence on the modern game. Former Australian skipper Greg Chappell went so far as to say that the Indian Premier League – cricket’s most lucrative product today – was a direct ‘descendant’ of WSC. Yet, Twenty20 cricket had a similarly inauspicious start.
In England, the format’s birthplace, the 18 county chairmen nearly voted against it altogether. The Guardian, meanwhile, predicted that T20 “would not alter the shape of cricket… nor would it become an international game”.
Well, it did – in 2004 to be exact. But even the coterie of international stars who lined up for Australia and New Zealand that day were far from convinced, with Ricky Ponting noting it was “a difficult game to play seriously”.
Fast forward to the present day and T20 is now cricket’s predominant format, which has radically transformed the game. With their 360-hitting, stars such as AB de Villiers and Jos Buttler have elevated the art of batting, whilst bowlers have responded by adding more variations to their repertoire. The sport, once unenthused by the use of analytics, is now a hotbed of data and performance analysis.
But perhaps T20’s greatest legacy is what Freddie Wilde and Tim Wigmore refer to as ‘the democratisation of cricket’. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has liberated players from associate nations, providing the likes of Rashid Khan (Afghanistan) and Sandeep Lamichane (Nepal) with a platform to test their skills against the best and pursue cricket as a meaningful career. The format has taken cricket from a closed shop to a game accessible by people the world over.
And that stretches beyond the pitch. Data from the annual fan survey conducted by CSM, the exclusive commercial agency for The Hundred, shows that T20 cricket in the UK speaks to a younger, more ethnically diverse and more gender-balanced audience than any other format.
All of which brings us on to The Hundred, the ECB’s new competition which gets underway on July 21. “A gameshow thingy” was how Cricinfo’s David Hopps referred to it, whilst ex-pro Vic Marks thought it to be an “unnecessary gimmick”. Cricket writer Michael Henderson went further still, labelling the entire idea a “squalid enterprise”.
The condescension is all too familiar. Now comes the actual cricket, and you should know by now what tends to happen next.
Crucially, the new format will see the return of live cricket to prime-time slots on the BBC – a move which will put the game in front of a broad TV audience across the UK and help resuscitate cricket’s dwindling popularity amongst the nation’s schoolkids. According to That Will Be England Gone, by Michael Henderson, cricket now ranks as the eighth-most popular sport in secondary schools across the UK.
The new format is also leading the way in advancing gender equality, with men’s and women’s fixtures taking place back-to-back throughout the tournament, and an equal prize pot guaranteed for the winners of each competition.
More eye-catching still, is the fact that The Hundred will be headlined by a women’s match. In a year where women’s sport has routinely been pushed to the fringes to make way for the men, that is an incredibly powerful symbol of where the ECB wants cricket to go in the UK.
Innovative new partnerships with BBC Music, The Croods 2 and the Lego Group can only help put the game in front of new audiences. And if last year’s early ticket sales were anything to go by, with more than 100,000 sold in a 48-hour window, it would seem that The Hundred does indeed have broad appeal.
Recent events have thrown a spotlight on the issue of diversity and inclusion within English cricket. In that respect, The Hundred has come at the perfect time, aiming to promote cricket as a game for all-comers.
So, when the world’s finest players line up on July 21, and bat takes on ball, I’ll be watching, secure in the knowledge The Hundred will prove its sceptics wrong, and act as cricket’s next gateway game.