England gave cricket to the world. It followed up with the generous present of T20. The Hundred, though, remains a gift unwrapped and a spurned England and Wales Cricket Board is now scrambling to secure its place in the crowded T20 world market.
It’s not too melodramatic to say that the future of first class cricket in England and Wales hangs in the balance.
It was only a matter of time before The Hundred collapsed. Reports are that the new leadership of English cricket recognises that the rest of the world is not going to adopt a format that does little more than shave a bit of time off the 20-over competition that has proved so successful, and hence lucrative.
Talk is of a replacement T20 tournament revolving round the 18 first class counties, each possibly branded as cities to play to a stronger sense of local identities.
While it is clearly too late to scrap The Hundred for this year – tickets have been sold and TV schedules fixed – the ECB simply must accelerate discussions with the counties and broadcasters to ensure it is killed off at the end of August and a replacement agreed for 2024.
The whole exercise was a folly that, according to some, has lost money and alienated English cricket’s core fan base. And all apparently to pander to broadcasters’ desire for shorter matches as a condition for prime time coverage.
The trouble is that the world has stolen a march on the ECB. There are T20 franchise leagues in almost all of the Test playing nations, offering the best players the chance to roll around the globe bowling dibbers and switch-hitting sixes. Even the US has got in on the act with the launch of Major League Cricket.
MLC’s inaugural player draft took place a few weeks back, foreign investment has washed in – the owners of the Mumbai Indians’ tie-up with New York catching the eye – and the first ball is due to be bowled on 13 July.
The 18-day US tournament takes place in a single venue in Dallas. Simultaneously, the final two Ashes tests of the summer will be played, ensuring MLC gets little or no coverage in England.
The 38 year-old Liam Plunkett, a World Cup winner in 2019, is the one notable English player, but he’s already been in the US for the past couple of years. The ECB has been unwilling to grant releases for cricketers to head west, fearful of the knock-on effect on The Hundred which starts two days after the MLC final.
The American upstart is a direct threat to any new T20 initiative in England and Wales by virtue of being in the northern hemisphere, and hence sharing our summer. Each of the other T20 leagues falls outside prime English cricket weeks.
Any success for the Stateside enterprise will suck dollars – and players – from the pot potentially available to the ECB, and in turn its member counties.
As a matter of urgency, England’s governing body must ask itself – honestly – what it can bring to the global T20 party. It saw The Hundred as, in part, a means of shoring up distressed counties’ finances.
Embedding these same counties in a new competition may be the right thing to do, but naming Yorkshire as Leeds, Essex as Chelmsford or Glamorgan as Cardiff will not in itself transform its commercial appeal. To do that, those 18 city teams simply must be opened up to third party investment.
The franchise model pioneered by the Indian Premier League, in turn inspired by the operation of American sports, has apparently been considered repugnant by those at the heart of English cricket who have cleaved to the traditional county structures.
The best opportunity to embrace franchise investors may have already passed, but the ECB won’t know for sure until it has tested the market. Too late to shuck off resistance to outside investment? Let’s find out.
I’ve long argued that franchises for teams in The Hundred should have been given, with appropriate strings attached, to the counties to be monetised. They are after all the ECB’s members. Instead the counties were bought off with relatively modest cash payments, the ECB retaining direct control of the tournament, its rewards and, more pertinently, risks.
Brave leadership, which now thankfully seems to be in place at cricket’s HQ, would trust the counties to do right by the sport if opened up to third party money as the enabler of a new T20 contender.
MI New York is the fifth T20 franchise owned by a subsidiary of India’s Reliance Industries. What price MI London (South), London (North), Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds or Brighton to sit alongside Mumbai Indians (men and women), MI Cape Town and MI Emirates?
Tales of two teams
The most inspiring sessions at last week’s SportsPro Live conference – for very different reasons – were with Shakhtar Donetsk and Wrexham AFC. One takeaway from each:
Shakhtar’s finances were crushed by Fifa’s insistence that its players’ contracts were torn up after the outbreak of war, yet it still owed money to other teams for past player purchases.
The club is still pursuing its case, but in the meantime Todd Boehly’s generosity in paying the fat end of £90m for Mykhailo Mudryk has righted the books. Not an altruistic buy, but a welcome one. No goals in 507 minutes from Mudryk to date for Chelsea.
Wrexham’s key sponsorship deals expire this summer, their Hollywood owners having recognised that their true value would only be realised once the first Disney+ series about the club had been aired. Smart, and even smarter after this season’s promotion. They now expect a “quantum leap” in revenues.
Regular readers will have followed Crawley Town’s crypto ownership with me this season. The club has very narrowly avoided dropping out of League Two and swapping places with Wrexham. Instead Hollywood will come to The Broadfield Stadium in 2023-24.
Keeping me honest
In the spirit of telling as many people as possible so that I daren’t backslide on my preparation, this week I’m starting a 16 week training block ahead of the Reykjavik Marathon. By 19 August I will be two days the wrong (right?) side of 60.
There are many training programmes available. I’ll be relying on one in Don Fink’s Mastering the Marathon, which is aimed at the (ahem!) veteran runner.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com