The fact this question hasn’t been answered isn’t for a lack of trying. New formats have been created, such as one-day and Twenty20; matches have been played at more accessible times, like weekday evenings and weekends; England even hosted the World Cup this summer. Interest in cricket suffers from the reverse problem that football has: not that football suffers from a lack of fans, but that appetite for domestic cricket is so much lower than for international cricket. The casual cricket fan, the audience that the ECB needs to capitalise on, grows up supporting England, cheers when they win the world cup, and feels sad when they lose the Ashes. They do not however really mind who wins the county championship. This issue is what the Hundred is hoping to solve.
In order for a sports fan to go from a sofa-sitting, score-checking level of engagement, to actually investing serious time and – importantly for English cricket – money, they need to go to see cricket. It’s all well and good England cricket having a strong following, but they play less often than domestic clubs, and a lot of the time it is overseas. England winning the World Cup at Lords is all well and good, but the growth in people interested in cricket means little unless they are able to follow it up by seeing cricket more regularly. The next world cup is in 4 years after all. Children play football with their friends because they’ve been brought up as a Manchester United Fan, owned the kit since their first birthday, and continue to identify with the club. They see these people on TV that they aspire to be and try to emulate them. The same cannot be said of cricket fans. It’s very rare for someone to be brought up a Glamorgan or an Essex fan; few eight-year-olds could name their favourite Northamptonshire player, let alone the entire team.
The premise of the Hundred is that fewer people identify with their county compared with their nearest city. As Britain industrialised, football clubs realised they needed to be based in cities, while cricket teams remained in small county towns; Somerset for example, one of the biggest cricketing counties, play in Taunton, a place few have heard of and even fewer have been. People from all over the Home Counties support London football clubs, but few don their ‘Denly’ shirt when Kent are playing. By centring teams in cities, the ECB are trying to get more people interested in cricket to go along to see their local teams play.
The 8 new teams, based in Nottingham, South London, Leeds, Cardiff, North London, Manchester, Brighton and Birmingham, look to solve this. With colourful kits, eye-catching logos, and names like ‘Welsh Fire’ and ‘Trent Rockets’, these new franchises are designed to attract the attention of a new audience eager for excitement and adrenaline. The Hundred does pose some risk. It is a bold step, pushing a new system onto a famously conservative current fan-base. Matthew Engel in The Guardian described the move as “completely incoherent, staggeringly expensive and potentially disastrous”. English cricket has invested massively into this new format, spending big on coaches and players from all over the world.
The other issue is that this new format will increase interest, both in terms of fans and upcoming players, only in the shortest form of the game. A new rich elite of 100-ball and Twenty20 specialists could leave behind those playing longer forms of the game, the ones that are needed if England wants to win the World Cup and the Ashes. The danger is the sport that The Hundred is based on might go into decline as the new format succeeds Kerry Packer had to endure significant difficulties to launch limited overs cricket in the 1970s, but the success that has followed on from this, and all the money that the sport has benefited from as a result of his contribution speak volumes about the potential of The Hundred. It may well be difficult, and take time to see the uptake that many hope for, but this time the governing bodies are on the side of the change.