Will ‘The Hundred’ succeed in widening access to cricket? What is the future of England’s traditional cricket venues?
T20 cricket at Wembley Stadium.
Michael Vaughan’s suggestion in January 2016 highlights a wider issue for cricket. In the era of the twenty over format, national cricket boards across the globe have pledged to improve participation, increase crowds, as well as television viewers. The introduction of ‘The Hundred’ only confirms this assessment.
The ECB are exploring the possibility of taking cricket away from traditional venues. In doing so, it hopes to revitalise the game, making cricket the premier summer sport in the UK. LazyFanSports analyses this aim.
The Hundred: Franchise Venues
The T20 Blast, previewed by LazyFanSports, has varied in success in its fifteen year history. With changes to the playing regulations, the time period the Blast is played in, as well as difficulties in attracting overseas superstars, the ECB is rightly seeking a franchise format. Nevertheless, the new ‘Hundred’ tournament raises the question of venues. Will the ECB use established test match venues or take the game to multi-use sports grounds?
Currently, the ECB is opting for the former. At least in the short-term, cricket will stay in traditional venues. Despite this, the ECB have failed to rule out playing one-off matches in larger stadia. For years, the Essex Eagles have been desperate to host a game in the London stadium, currently occupied by West Ham United. The 60,000 capacity provides an opportunity to draw a large crowd from a cricket-loving East London populace.
Venues such as Lord’s, Trent Bridge and Old Trafford are not under threat. There is no suggestion of exporting international cricket to football grounds. These venues, heaped in their tradition, remain the bedrock of English cricket. They should be protected at all costs. In fact, there is no contradiction in expanding cricket’s audience and safeguarding historic venues.
Whether this happens is another matter, with both Lord’s and the Oval named as venues for ‘The Hundred’ competition. In the long-term, it may be an avenue to explore. Although, this must be part of a broader package of reforms to widen access and participation in cricket.
Case Study: Australia
Cricket-specific venues in Australia have broadly ceased to exist. In modern times, grounds are shared between Aussie Rules football clubs and cricket teams. While boards across the globe are in awe of Cricket Australia’s capacity to draw enormous crowds, this venue-sharing has its drawbacks.
First, look at the issue of drop-in wickets. The new Optus Stadium in Perth will replace the famous Waca, where Australia have not lost to England since 1978 in the Ashes. The new stadium, which will be a multi-purpose sporting venue, must ensure it continues the tradition of fast, bouncy wickets. As technology evolves, this should become easier to master. In ensuring home advantage is not lost, Cricket Australia hopes to use improved venues for Big Bash and international matches.
Another issue is whether these vast grounds are suited to matches against lesser opposition. Although 100,000 crowds at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) for the Ashes Boxing Day Test may set the heart racing. When the West Indies visited in 2015, a very different picture appears. For the UK, the ECB needs to be pragmatic with its use of venues. The worst form of publicity is a half-empty ground.
However, rather than see the Australian model as an abject failure, the ECB must learn valuable lessons. A pragmatic approach which protects all forms of the game is absolutely necessary. Yet this is not impossible to achieve. In reality, it is the only way to grow the sport in a new age.
Participation: Broader Challenges
‘The Hundred’ is not simply designed to attract larger attendances. With the new competition introduced in 2020, the ECB must use it to increase participation. This can be split into three categories: free-to-air television, the south-Asian demographic and finally, in state schools.
The new 100 ball format is designed to appeal to free-to-air television broadcasters. With restrictions on how much sport they can present each day, the new competition can be fitted into an evening slot. Moreover, finishing around 9pm, children are a prime target for television companies. Channel 4’s coverage of the 2005 Ashes captivated the nation; it is hoped a broadcaster can do the same with ‘The Hundred.’
Matt Floyd’s recent documentary on south-Asian cricket participation provided a damning assessment. Frankly, England has failed to integrate this community into the national game. With 30 per cent of recreational cricketers from a South-Asian background, only 4 percent become county players. One of ‘The Hundred’s’ main aims must be to reverse this trend. Encouraging overseas players from the sub-continent is one method of doing this. However, the ECB needs to showcase British Asian talent. By demonstrating a pathway to the top, young English Asians will want to play for national team. Thereby, the counties and England should have a wider pool for selection.
Finally, supporting cricket in state schools must be a joint-venture with the new ‘Hundred’ competition. With only 7 per cent of British pupils attending a private school, the ECB is picking national team players from a select-group of individuals. Illustrating this, in early 2018, Mark Stoneman was the only member of England’s test side from a state school. He has now been dropped. To diversify and widen the talent pool, ‘The Hundred’ has to be the catalyst for a real action plan. One which delivers quality cricket coaching in every corner of the nation. Larger venues may provide short-term gain to the ECB, yet real challenges lay behind declining attendances among younger people.
Will it help participation though?
Widening access to cricket must not be done at the expense of its finest venues. Whether this is a Lord’s test match, or a T20 night at Chelmsford, cricket needs to strike a balance between preserving and growing the game. As argued, half empty stadia are the worst possible form of publicity, only alienating those who the ECB are trying to attract.
Overall, LazyFanSports proposes a middle ground. One which balances the needs of counties and current international cricket grounds, with the opportunities afforded by the franchise T20 competition from 2020.
Unless larger crowds in bigger venues actually leads to a growth in youth participation, taps into the south-Asian community and increases cricketing opportunities in state schools, then the PR and marketing will be worthless. The ECB must plan for the long-term. Both to uphold the great venues of the game, as well as ensure cricket’s success in a new era.