The English Cricket Board’s recent announcement of a brand new 100-ball format has been nothing if not divisive among the sporting community.
County Championship attendances are on the rise and it is attracting new audiences – in 2016, a 16% rise in attendances on the previous year was seen and interest in Test Cricket is hardly waning with all summer home tests selling fast.
Yet a fear remains that the increasing popularity of the limited-overs game is slowly and painfully writing the death sentence for its Test and four-day kin.
Long-form fans are anxious of what the future holds, while others are less sceptical as they see limited-overs cricket as a completely separate entity with a different set of fans.
The Oval played host to Surrey CC’s first home County Championship game of the season on a bright but breezy day in early May.
The stands were, as ever, packed with groups, couples and the unaccompanied – among the latter was Joe Shaw, a 29-year-old translator.
“You can sit here and not particularly pay attention a lot of the time,” he said.
“There are points where it really dramatic whereas I feel as though you lose that with the shorter game.
“There is no real story to it, it’s just them going out and trying to hit it as hard as they can.”
The reduction of the long and short forms of cricket to a tug of war over attracting fans misses the mark entirely.
The two forms are followed by different people and they are enjoyed for different reasons.
Shaw continued: “I just think it is so separate that I don’t think it interferes with county cricket too much. I just don’t really pay attention to the shorter game at all.
“When I did come I kind of enjoyed it, but it seems more about drinking – it’s just a different experience.”
Youth participation in cricket has been in decline since the 2010-11 season – the year of the famous away Ashes win, and a recent ECB report cited that just 2% of children identified cricket as their favourite sport.
The T20 Blast in London, as Shaw pointed out, has turned into a party atmosphere with sell-out crowds of half-concentrating, half-drunk fans and the ECB recognises that this is not a place where parents want to take their children.
According to Andrew Stauss, the 100-ball game is aimed at ‘mums and kids’ as the domestic 50-over and t20 tournaments can run well beyond 9pm.
The idea that young people must have access to the professional game in order to create sustained interest from them is a sound one but in the Long Room on the second floor of the John Edrich stand, Nick Gaywood made a blunt observation.
Gaywood is somewhat of a veteran of the game. He represented Devon with Peter Roebuck, playing Minor Counties and List A cricket over the span of an 18-year career.
He said: “I am massively in favour of anything that attracts new audiences or helps retain audiences.
“But am surprised because I thought that the 20/20 game was meant to be the panacea for those problems.”
Gaywood is among many who were told the introduction of the t20 game was to increase youth participation by providing a shorter, more digestible format.
What is worse is the so far, the only proposal by the ECB to deadbolt the youths interest beyond the format itself is the use Joe Root and Ben Stokes as franchise poster-boys whilst they won’t play a single 100-ball game due to England commitments.
For Gaywood and many, the answers that the ECB are giving to the questions they posed themselves are not being answered sufficiently.
“Cricket is like nothing else and in today’s high-paced world I feel that there is a lot of merit to the slower pace and the rhythm of the game,” he explained.
“It is by no means a given that cricket will continue to thrive without some really hard work done around the grassroots, schools and clubs to make sure the game prevails.
“I would just hate to see it die.”
As per the ECB’s plan, for youth participation to increase in cricket, the 100-ball game has to be a success. For the 100-ball game to be a success in those terms, the ECB is going to have to provide something to keep the interests of the youth beyond marketing gimmicks.
T20 cricket was supposed to provide the answer to the problems in youth engagement, which by the ECB’s own admission, it did not. Whether ‘The Hundred’ will succeed where T20 failed is a complete mystery.
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