Don Topley: Cricket is drinking in the last chance saloon - why we must embrace The Hundred
- Credit: PA
With the season firmly put to bed and award ceremonies completed, October should be a very quiet month for the cricket world. It isn’t going to be, as this is a ground-breaking month for the professional game in this country.
Controversially, we are in the middle of the first 'Players Draft' in the new short form competition due to be launched next summer - The Hundred.
This new competition, (which has created eight new men's and women's teams - not counties but cities), has created a new format (100 balls in blocks of five or ten balls) with amended laws. It will be played next summer from 17th July to 16th August, just five weeks long.
It has not been well received by traditional cricket fans, and particularly county members who feel suddenly detached and alienated from the governing body and their decision makers.
The level of vehement criticism is voluble, and aimed directly at Tom Harrison, Colin Graves and Andrew Strauss
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I have, too, come in for much criticism on social media about my enthusiasm for the new event. I love county cricket and am honoured to have had a career in it, but the game and society has changed. We are no longer in the 1980s!
I genuinely believe it is a great opportunity for the game and remain extremely excited for its future. Cricket is not at a crossroads, we are beyond that - we are in last chance saloon for the sport!
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Of course, this summer has been brilliant in all forms, especially with the World Cup victory and the interest in The Ashes.
However, we cannot get away from the fact that cricket isn't relevant in today's society; participation numbers are seriously dwindling week on week as amateur clubs fold, schools rarely play, even independent schools are challenged.
Cricket is seriously struggling and something has to happen, against the better wishes of the traditional spectator.
It is well advertised that cricket has been behind Sky's paywall for years, limiting the game's exposure, but this existing agreement has been incredibly lucrative and vitally important to the 18 counties.
Each county received annual funds (£1.5m) from the governing body which kept many alive and in business. Cricket fans often selectively forget this.
Five of the 18 counties have very nearly gone to the wall in the last ten years even with the Sky deal. Some are struggling again, with the ECB paying some CEOs.
These traditionalists are disappointed and depressed with more white ball cricket dominating their red ball love: they denigrate the t20 and now The Hundred and many simply don't see them as cricket.
The art of playing long innings has been eroded by the emergence and popularity of witnessing explosive fours and sixes.
History tells us, a new format of limited-overs cricket was introduced in the 1960s/70s as the game needed to evolve. Remember Kerry Packer? There's a legendary story in the 1969 Season of John Player League when a Somerset opening bowler recorded eight overs, eight maidens to an Essex batsman who thought he negotiated the dangerous bowler - that's almost laughable in today's cricket! The game must never stop progressing and evolving.
Just take Ben Stokes and his recent World Cup performances and his unbelievable match-winning knock at Headingley - all his skills have been developed by modern white ball and in particular t20 cricket.
The exciting new five year TV broadcast deal starts in 2020 and is worth over £1.1 billion, with cricket also returning to terrestrial TV. Approximately one third of next season's Hundred mens' matches will be on BBC which is vitally important. Included in that agreement, we'll also see some England t20 matches - again, excellent exposure to all.
The Hundred is aimed at a potential new audience of families, females, children and people new to a more simplified game. Hopefully the shorter duration will appeal and encourage them to watch at a ground or on television and then even consider taking up the sport.
It's not necessarily aimed at the traditional cricket lover, who will have his 14 four-day games, the t20blast and possibly the 50-over at his county.
We play more domestic cricket here in this country than anywhere else - there is really enough cricket to go around for all - and every season the schedule is congested.
Many question why we don't invest in the existing t20blast, instead of The Hundred. With 18 counties, the standard is diluted. The t20blast is fun, popular, entertaining and a financial lifeline to the 18 counties but it does not sit at the world's top-table.
Having an eight-team competition comprising the best 96 domestic cricketers and the world's top 24 overseas will undoubtedly improve the talent and calibre of the product on show.
Some are surprised that having won the recent 50 Over World Cup the domestic game of 50 Overs will be downgraded and played at the same time as The Hundred, without the the very best players.
The Minor Counties, (newly named National Counties) will be re-introduced to the professional arena with a friendly on 17th July as a warm-up game for the First Class counties.
With two t20 World Cups in the next three years, priority will be given to the two short forms. Expect a return to a profiled 50 Over competition when the next 50 Over World Cup comes around again in four years time - the English season is just too busy!
On Thursday we saw the first part of The Hundred draft with England marquee players the very first picks.
October 20th is the next date when the eight cities choose their three overseas and nine further domestic players in a televised draft. Many of the 400 county professionals will be disappointed.
Once the anger has subsided the ECB believe The Hundred will emerge as a supreme cricket tournament to revitalise our game - those stubborn and non-attending cricket lovers will no doubt turn the TV over to catch a glance.
I will embrace this new cricket format which aims to give the game a better opportunity to be around in 15/20 years time - let's all embrace it!