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In this (not quite) post pandemic summer, the public have been treated to a bumper summer of sport: the delayed 2020 Euros, the delayed 2020 Olympics, Wimbledon service resumed, a British and Irish Lions tour, and all the rest. July also saw the arrival of the Covid–delayed The Hundred – a new domestic cricket competition (indeed, an entirely new cricket format) introduced to the English (and Welsh) summer for the first time. The finals took place at Lord’s Cricket Ground on Saturday.
The new tournament and new format is a conscious attempt to tackle some of domestic cricket’s biggest problems. Amongst them, the perception that cricket is conservative, less than inclusive, complicated by the minutiae of its laws (LBW rule, anyone?), trapped in its long traditions. The fan base is disproportionately male, stale, and pale, in spite of the game’s reach into South Asian communities – see this series of Wisden articles on cricket’s lack of diversity. Aside from these cultural difficulties there is of course an inherent problem with the accessibility of the game itself. So often, it’s the things which purists most love that put others off – the ‘great leave’, the way that it’s often impossible to know who’s winning, and the mystifying cricket–speak (silly mid–on, cow corner, googlies, and the term ‘left–arm chinaman’ – only recently retired).
The Hundred is meant to fix all this. Its simpler format of a hundred balls per innings provides a handy count down (or count up), and matches come combined with dollops of entertainment, and a franchise system. It’s played in a (comparatively) short two and a half hours, and is broken down into five rather than six ball ‘overs’. The eight city/region–based franchises (e.g. Birmingham Phoenix, Manchester Originals, and so on) each field men’s and women’s teams (usually in a double header, giving welcome exposure to the women’s game) and are intended to provide a football–like easy identification (compared to 18 traditional cricketing counties, which anyway don’t cover much of the country – pity those living in the ‘minor’ counties!).
This all makes a lot of sense. It’s something of a caricature – particularly to those turning out in club games – but domestic cricket has seemed like a quiet, high–walled garden of manicured lawns and tastefully organised flower beds. The walls keep out young people, women, ethnic minorities, lower income groups, people without large amounts of spare time – in other words, anyone who is not already initiated. The Hundred knocks down the wall, lowering the barriers as far as they can be lowered, while still being something which is recognisably cricket. And for all the gimmicks – pyrotechnics, DJs, and golden leg pads – it certainly is cricket.
Why is this interesting? The Hundred is a case study in one approach to the profound challenge of ensuring a sport (and I mean that in its largest sense – not only the game itself, but also a culture with its sometimes mystifyingly complex set of traditions, practices and institutions) has a chance of surviving in a society which has in so many ways moved away from it. In 1993 John Major tried to convince Conservative Eurosceptics that Britain’s future lay in Europe, and that in 50 years’ time Britain would still be a country of “long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’.” He is remembered for his particularly misguided combination of optimism and nostalgia. There are indeed long shadows at county grounds, but not in the way he meant. Warm beer has given way to craft lager, the green suburbs to HS2, and the pools couldn’t compete with the National Lottery (ironically, introduced by the Major government). And if there are any old maids cycling to communion, they are indeed very old. A tradition cannot live by love alone.
Yet the Hundred’s architects and advocates must themselves acknowledge that not all innovation is helpful. The new competition depends on the very framework which it yearns to move away from – namely, the county clubs that develop cricketers and maintain facilities. Most of these counties supported the introduction of the Hundred, they all own a share of it and will profit from it, if profits there are. Yet equally, they suffer the consequences. The Hundred will cream off their best players for a chunk of the English summer, running interference on other competitions. Who cares? No–one outside the cricketing community really, except that the now imbalanced domestic schedule is said to be having an adverse effect on the ‘red–ball’ game, that is the longer multi–day form of the game, which may in turn undermine the English Test team. If you care about that, then you should probably care about how the domestic game is structured. Innovators need to honour the tradition.
I’m not only talking here, of course, about cricket in England. I’m talking about any rich tradition which finds itself fighting for attention and relevance. Those practices which are ancient, storied, complex and in many ways wonderful will indeed be viewed with a mix of boredom, frustration, and confusion by those who do not already inhabit them, and the custodians of these traditions will have to ask how they can find ways in which others can not only understand, but then enjoy, and finally love what they love. They face the questions like, ‘What institutions or conventions are getting in the way of the practice?’ ‘Who is currently (even unintentionally) being kept away from the thing we love?’ ‘What can we do to bridge into the worlds and experience of different people, while still offering something which is authentically part of our tradition?’
There is a rather obvious analogy for these case studies in the world of religion. Earlier in the summer, for instance, different voices in the Anglican church found themselves at contretemps over proposals to establish 10,000 new church plants. This seemed to align with a general dissatisfaction with alleged centralism and managerialism, criticisms which have been directed at the England and Wales Cricket Board. Camps and campaigns are being gathered for another culture–skirmish. Like the argument about The Hundred, it is really an argument about how we steward and curate precious and ancient things – an honourable fight, whichever side you’re on (by the way, you’re both on the same side).
For me, the Hundred isn’t the right answer – but it’s definitely not the wrong one. I don’t propose solutions, but I suspect they lie in the embrace of tradition and innovation, rather than the rejection of one in favour of another, and in some hard thinking about what constitutes the irreducible core of the things we love.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.