After all the soul searching, all the rebranding, all the praise and criticism, it turned out it was just cricket.
It’s true, there were more fireworks, DJs and sponsored snacks and slightly fewer balls than usual, but at its essence, what was great about the start of cricket’s new competition, was great cricket. The Oval Invincibles overcame a torrid start to chase down the Manchester Originals’ 136-6 with a late flourish. Captain Dane Van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp’s partnership laid the groundwork, before late hitting from Mady Villiers against the excellent offspin of Sophie Ecclestone, the world’s number one T20 bowler sealing the deal.
The eventual victory, achieved with just two balls spare was greeted by a rapturous home crowd. If there were concerns that the crowds might struggle to identify with the newly formed sides, they were dispatched over long on.
At the ECB there must have been plenty of brows being mopped, not just because of the scorching temperatures in the UK, but in profound relief that this great gamble has got off to such a promising start.
In many ways, the success of opening night, and the action since – including Jemimah Rodrigues’ sparkling 92 not out – reinforced the idea that the Hundred’s biggest selling point is its women. This, one might assume, will get even more pronounced as some of the biggest names in the men’s tournament disappear on international duty. The one club two teams system and message is as attractive as it is important. The skill, power and competitiveness on show in the Hundred’s opener was a reminder of how much good this could do the women’s game in England and abroad. The sight of a family packed crowd, with young girls and boys running and clapping and cheering was itself immensely cheering.
The challenge for the Hundred is arguably much greater in the men’s competition. Much of the criticism has focused on the damage the new competition will do to the county game, the difficulty for longstanding fans to identify with the newly redrawn map of the game which has scattered county stars across the country. There are positives too though. The draft system should ensure some level of parity, in individual encounters and across the season, and it also serves as an event that can whet appetites in advance of the competition.
For now, in a stifling summer, we should remind ourselves how refreshing it is to be talking in those terms about women’s sport, not just standing parallel with men’s, but arguably, in this event, its driving force.
Questions remain of course. The tournament has only had one set of fixtures to dispel them. Where is the representation for the South West and North East corners of England? As for the format itself, how responsible is it for the Hundred’s strong start? Did the new crowds cheering in the stadium really come because of a love of timeouts or umpires holding bowling change cards. Did those contributing to the high television audiences do so because they enjoyed the new look scorecard. Or, did these people come because live sport is attractive, particularly after a barren 18 months? Did they come because tickets were cheap, especially for families? Did they watch because the match was on free to air television? Could all of these things have been achieved while still allowing for an extra 20 balls, while still playing a format that allows for easy comparison against other competitions and has been wildly successful around the world?
We should remember that Twenty20 once stared down similar accusations as those levelled against the Hundred, even if it was a lesser departure from tradition. And after opening night, the questions about the event seem less overwhelming than they once did, banished, for now at least, by the quality of the cricket on show. Others are becoming more prominent.
On the evidence of the first round of matches, one potential danger for the Hundred is that it becomes a tournament of two crowds. Without seeing any sort of statistical breakdown, the crowd for the opening men’s match seemed much more the kind of audience anyone familiar with evening T20 blast matches might recognize. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is nothing wrong with the two audiences having different ‘best of times’. But, with tickets for the remainder of the tournament offering entry to two back to back matches, one men’s, one women’s, it will be a real blow if those purchasing tickets choose to attend only one game, leaving the unedifying spectacle of empty seats for the other.
In fact, there are signs here and elsewhere that the ECB could be bolder in promoting the women’s game. It emerged earlier this week that in the event of the men’s game being washed out but not the women’s ticket holders will be entitled to a refund. If it is the women’s game washed but not the men’s refunds will not apply. After the embarrassing failure to provide a fresh strip for England’s Test Match against India, it is tempting to wonder again whether the ECB realises the opportunity the women’s game provides, and the opportunity cricket has to promote both its men and women at the same venues on the same day. It is something that relatively few sports can match. In tennis, only at Grand Slam events and occasional mixed tournaments do men and women compete in parallel events at the same venue. It is one of the reasons those events hold such cachet. Other sports are moving in this direction, including Golf with events like the Scandinavian Mixed. And if we need a demonstration of the fact that sport is sport, and can engage fans in a mixed setting, just look to the Olympics.
This is a new tournament and there will be learnings and tweaks to future editions. The ECB has already indicated it may reassess at the refund policy. There will be other amendments as it irons out kinks in the format and provision.
For now, we should lean into the Hundred’s strength, men’s and women’s cricket back to back in the full, bright glare of the media. Let people argue about the format if they want. More importantly, let people watch. Let boys and girls and men and women be inspired by what they see in any given game.
Test. ODI. T20. The Hundred. Men’s cricket and women’s cricket. They are all, after all, just cricket.