One does not need a PhD in economics to spot a paradox in the discussions about possible private investment into The Hundred, and perhaps an expansion of the present competition from eight to 10 teams. The England and Wales Cricket Board, whose stewardship of the game in recent years might most charitably be described as dismal, apparently wants private money to come into The Hundred because it doubts it will ever again conclude a broadcasting rights deal so lucrative as it currently has with Sky. Why is it believed improbable that a broadcaster would ever pay so handsomely for rights again? Could it be that they expect the novelty of the competition to wear off? Could it be that the ECB are hoping that unsuspecting investors will pump money into English cricket and, in doing so, overpay seriously for a wasting asset?
That is very much how it looks, but that is the ECB’s problem: the ancient principle of caveat emptor applies in cricket as it does to all else, and if they can persuade private investors to pour their cash into something that might easily turn out to be the cricketing equivalent of cryptocurrency, then good luck to them. It would certainly be something of a risk. Both America and the Caribbean are developing T20 franchises, to be played during the English summer. At least T20 bears a closer resemblance to cricket than The Hundred, which is cricket for the hard of understanding.
The ECB believes that, in the summer months, England would be a preferable location for many members of the international circus, more so than the United States or the West Indies. On what basis that assumption is made is not clear. Some IPL players – especially those playing for teams in America and the Caribbean owned by IPL magnates – may feel the advantage of sticking with the most popular format rather than diverting to play in a competition that has set itself apart from what is recognisably cricket. If after pouring money into The Hundred the investors find that their teams have not, after all, cornered the market in the biggest international stars, they will have some serious explaining to do.
And if those desperate enough to want to gorge themselves on a diet of Mickey Mouse cricket have a choice between something that actually looks like the game, and one that does not, and which is played by a similar international circus of highly-paid mercenaries, it won’t matter whether the televised match is being beamed in from Philadelphia, Bridgetown or Lord’s. The established variant, with its six-ball overs, is going to prevail. Hence the ECB’s keenness to try to fill its boots while it can, and before potential investors realise they have been sold the proverbial pup.
And while they are going about this business, one wonders what the ECB imagines will be the effect on the rest of English cricket. There is a limited supply of highly-skilled, internationally-recognised players. No-one condemns a man for seeking to maximise his income, least of all professional sportsmen, whose years of high-earning potential are strictly limited. The Indian Premier League has revolutionised white-ball cricket. Despite the commercial success of the recent World Cup, the IPL has driven a number of nails in the coffin of the 50-over game, of which we are already seeing less. How many more World Cups will there be, as fewer and fewer limited over matches occur in that format?
When T20 franchises take off in other parts of the world in the English summer – particularly if the one in the United States succeeds – that pool of highly-talented players is going to become seriously overstretched. And that is before one considers what this means for the timetabling of Test cricket during the English season, or the availability of the highest quality players to take part in it. The ECB’s course, whether it realises it or not, is helping to destroy Test cricket. The highest form of the game, if it is to be sustained, requires precisely the sort of players who are in demand for the T20 franchises and, indeed, for The Hundred. As the rewards for the franchised competitions climb, so more players will opt out of being available for playing in the Tests; and indeed, there will be fewer Tests with, in many countries, even more steeply declining crowds. In England, Test cricket remains something of a golden goose; in the pursuit of cash from something that hardly resembles cricket at all, the ECB risks killing that goose.
England’s debacle in the World Cup mattered little. However, it was clear that one of the reasons the team did so poorly was because the 50-over specialism is increasingly alien to England cricketers; but also because being part of an international circus and playing for one’s country are not necessarily psychologically compatible. And we live in an age where we are told that all sport, but especially long-form ones such as traditional cricket, are played very much in the mind, because of sheer pressure of professional sport.
Today’s cricketers are often expected to do everything; and most of them can’t. This is why some have opted out of one form of the game or another. The best will be attracted to where they can earn most, which is not Tests. As Test cricket becomes denuded of its potential stars not only will it become more marginalised, but county cricket – itself roundly abused and neglected by the authorities – will head down the hill towards pointlessness.
There is something depressingly predictable about what the ECB is doing now: it is following its usual mode of business of, when it is in a hole, digging even deeper. I make no apology for reiterating a theme I have aired here several times over the last few years: this strategy of the ECB’s means there should be two codes in cricket, with two separate pools of players: and it is highly questionable whether the ECB should govern Test and County Championship cricket when its main obsession is raising ever greater sums of money.
It should have become obvious by now that the structure of the game cannot go on as it is, but apparently it isn’t. The form of the game that serious cricket lovers prize remains in the departure lounge. Cynics say that India’s control of the game, because of its control of its finances, leaves England’s authorities powerless to do anything except ask how high they should jump. It is up to the counties to tell the ECB to assert itself, or face utter impotence.