The opening round of the County Championship may have been played out in temperatures akin to those endured by the final crew of HMS Terror, and returned just three wins from the nine games, but over four days it threw up plenty to savour.
Glamorgan’s draw at Headingley struck a blow for those of us who are younger siblings when Billy Root brought up his hundred off the bowling older brother Joe, while Darren Stevens did so for those of us in our fifth decade when, aged 44 and 344 days, he became the oldest centurion since 1986 with 116 in the draw at Northamptonshire.
At Chelmsford the champions, Essex, were kept at bay as Worcestershire’s Jake Libby produced the second longest innings in the competition’s record books – missing out on top spot by 120 seconds – when batting 11 hours and 21 minutes for his unbeaten 180. And at Trent Bridge Libby’s old club Nottinghamshire showed they’re not simply a collection of white-ball dashers with a fine fourth-day rearguard to deny Durham.
Gloucestershire, promoted in 2019 but not rewarded for this by the rejigged format, produced a handsome victory against Surrey. And though the Spin witnessed a chilly stalemate between Warwickshire and Derbyshire, Liam Norwell’s five-wicket haul after 18 injury-plagued months was heartening and Matt Critchley’s batting eye-catching.
Hampshire crushed Leicestershire thanks to James Vince’s double century and six wickets for Mason Crane in a match which caused opprobrium when Lewis McManus “stumped” Hassan Azad without the ball in his glove. And the most remarkable result came at Lord’s, as Middlesex squandered not one but three winning positions in a galling four-wicket defeat against Somerset.
Snow stopped play, the pitches were unusually benign for spring and supporters remain locked out until mid-May at the earliest. But the new enhanced streams serviced the audience well and, though social media is not always a reliable barometer, it felt like there was a surge of positivity at the start of what is an important cricket season.
All of which brings us to the Hundred. On Monday Sky announced its talent roster for the new tournament and the selection was one to largely nod along to: Andrew Flintoff is an understandable hire, having transcended the sport in 2005 and remained a household name in his second career as an entertainment broadcaster; so, too, Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad (when the latter is not playing Test cricket).
Kass Naidoo and Zainab Abbas are smart overseas signings from South Africa and Pakistan respectively, both engaging and experienced anchors, while Dinesh Karthik has already won English hearts during the recent India tour with his charismatic analysis and wardrobe. It looks fresh overall, plus there was news that the entire women’s tournament will be available for free via Sky’s YouTube channel. Great move.
But then later in the day the Daily Telegraph reported that in the new competition the term “wickets” could be replaced with “outs” as part of a simplified lexicon driven by focus groups. There is a legitimate conversation to be had here. The use of “batters”, for example, seems reasonable as a gender-neutral term and one which dates back further than many realise. Instead a tsunami of negativity and ridicule broke out online in response; the latest reminder of the challenge facing the Hundred’s evangelical organisers.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point he outlined The Law of the Few, when ideas or products successfully spread thanks to a small number of connectors, mavens and salespeople. Connectors boast the social links, salespeople are persuaders. But mavens are key, using their expertise on a subject to educate and energise others. They simplify complex ideas but, notably, have no vested interest or ulterior motive.
Cricket’s existing fanbase and the non-rights-holding media should have plenty ready to perform this crucial role for the Hundred. And yet the cascade of PR missteps since the controversial move away from Twenty20 in 2018 has either soured out a good number before a ball has been bowled or left others nervous about endorsing it.
As such, the Hundred continues to be spruiked chiefly by those on the payroll, be it rights-holders, players or the “influencers” hired to flood Instagram with posts that legally require the hashtag #ad on them. Authentic endorsements still seem in short supply and, with the launch in less than 100 days, this must be a concern.
Maybe the power of BBC, Sky and a monster marketing budget will be enough. Ticket sales are said to be encouraging and perhaps once the tournament begins and the recalibrated cricket takes over, all misgivings melt away as supporters new and old come together. But if the Hundred is to truly tip this way, it can ill afford many more outs between now and then.