Fast-food cricket is coming, whether we like it or not

England


When Colonel Sanders first started cooking the fried chicken that would make KFC such a successful brand, each order would take half-an-hour or more. Eventually, after much work and a little bit of compromise, the company reduced preparation time to the point that customers hardly needed to wait at all. It was wildly successful. But 20 years after Sanders franchised his recipe for the first time, he described the modern variant as “horrible” and tasting like “wallpaper paste”.

The point of this? At some stage, when someone or something compromises itself so much in the desire to appeal to others, it risks losing its very essence.

Might we be in such territory now with cricket? Could the search for a new audience now have become so desperate that the sport finds itself, figuratively at least, standing under a red bulb wearing a short skirt and a price tag?

Probably. But the proposals for the new competition outlined by the ECB are – at worst – nothing more than a small step further down that alley. It’s not the length of matches that is a threat; it is the fact they’re played in a window which forces the 50-over competition and/or County Championship – and as a consequence, England’s international teams – to be compromised. It’s the window that’s the problem, not what’s in it.

At first glance these new proposals may appear pretty radical. But English cricket has often led the way with bold changes and this may not prove so different. Are these proposals more radical than the introduction of the limited-overs tournament in 1963 or T20 in 2003? Are they more radical than the Sunday League playing conditions which limited bowlers’ run-ups to 15 yards to ensure games finished within the BBC’s transmission window? Are they more radical than broadcasters dictating the start time of days of Test cricket – as Channel 4 did – to fit in with the rest of their scheduling?

Perhaps only in one respect. We’ve had four, five, six and eight-ball overs so we can probably cope with the introduction of a 10-ball over. But to mix the length of overs during the course of a game is new. And many will be uncomfortable with it.

It could have been much, much worse. ESPNcricinfo understands that, during discussions, the idea of abandoning LBW dismissals was considered. And while Clare Connor, the head of women’s cricket at the ECB, suggested the 10-ball over – originally devised to finish the innings – could yet be used as “a wildcard” at any stage, it does appear a temptation to embrace more extreme gimmicks has been largely resisted. Connor did, however, also confirm that the 100 deliveries could yet to be divided another way (she did not speculate how) so the possibility of 20 five-ball overs or even ten 10-ball overs remains.

It’s worth noting that information of this new competition – tentatively called “The 100” at this stage – has been fed to us in bite-size morsels. The cynical would suggest that is to render them more digestible. And the cynical are often right. There may be more surprises around the corner.

For some, talk of 10-ball overs and wildcards will be a step too far. It will feel like such a distortion from the game with which they fell in love that they no longer feel it appeals to them or perhaps even recognise it. Some will come round in time – as they did with ‘pyjama’ cricket and other pejorative terms for the shorter formats – but some will not.

What nobody should doubt is the seriousness of the issues facing the game. This competition has been introduced to appeal to a new, mass-market audience. With little cricket in state schools or on free-to-air TV, the game’s relevance in British society has diminished sharply. Clubs are folding; memberships are literally dying. Without the oxygen of publicity, the game has been suffocating for years. It is a crisis. Something needed to be done. If shortening and simplifying the game – scoreboards are likely to simply count down from 100 deliveries rather than contain details of overs and run-rates – it might be an innovation worth exploring.

The ECB insist these ideas did not come from the broadcasters; a narrative confirmed by Sky and the BBC. But it’s not hard to see why they – and the BBC in particular – would like it. These changes will reduce the length of games by between 30 and 40 minutes. That means matches can be scheduled to start at 6.30pm (2.30pm for afternoon games) in confidence they will be finished in time for other programming to start at 9pm.

That’s important. Cricket needs that mass audience that the BBC still offers and, if these compromises enable more families to watch without the concerns of late bedtimes, then all well and good. Being free comes at a price.

Perhaps, in an ideal world, T20 games could simply have been played at a brisker rate. But some matches in the IPL are now stretching to four hours and such things make schedulers nervous.

Besides, the ECB also hope the differentiation between the new competition and the existing T20 Blast will prove positive. The initial reaction from counties seems fairly receptive to the idea.

But suggestions the ideas were “enthusiastically received at all of the meetings”, as Tom Harrison, the ECB CEO, claimed seems somewhat simplistic. For a start, when the ECB says they have discussed the idea with “the players”, they mean only three players: Daryl Mitchell, Eoin Morgan and Heather Knight.

Mitchell and Matt Wheeler (the two PCA chairmen) described themselves as “open-minded” over the proposals, but Mitchell was bemused by the suggestion he was hugely supportive.

“I represent 420 players,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “Until we’ve canvassed their views, it’s too early to say. But I was a bit taken aback by the proposals when I first heard them. I’m more open-minded now, a couple of weeks later, having given them time to sink in.” Discussions with the players started on Thursday. It is too early to predict the outcomes.

“The game has been suffocating for years. It is a crisis. Shortening and simplifying the game it might be an innovation worth exploring”

Is it really a simplification to introduce another format, too? A fourth format. And one which, at present, features 15 overs of normal length and one of 10 balls. Was T20 really so complicated? Has the world dumbed down that much?

For those reasons – and several others – it cannot be guaranteed The 100 will ever see the light of day. Both broadcasters and the counties were sold the idea of a new T20 competition. This is clearly not what they signed up for. While the broadcasters appear satisfied, the counties are still taking stock of news they only learned on Thursday. Again, it is too early to predict the outcomes, but initial responses might be summarised as surprised but not negative.

The real problem with this new competition remains the window. By providing a six-week window for it, all other forms of the game have been compromised. The T20 Blast has to be played earlier than is ideal, the Championship is pushed further into the margins and the 50-over competition may well be lacking the best 110 or so white-ball players.

The players say they like the window, but do they also like being employed? The top 100 or so might benefit from the new competition, but the rest of the county game is being marginalised and degraded. Make no mistake: the investment in this new competition comes at the expense of the Test team and England’s World Cup hopes beyond 2019.

A new audience may well be attracted – why wouldn’t it be? Cricket remains a great game – but they will be attracted only to the shortest (T20 and The 100) formats. Scheduling the tournament for Friday nights (and weekends) and accepting lesser revenues for greater free-to-air coverage may well have protected the longer formats better.

The world is changing fast and many of us don’t much like the changes. But these proposals are aimed at a new audience and, in themselves, contain some logic. And remember this: despite the views of its inventor, KFC continues to sell vast quantities of its chicken. And, on Thursday night, these proposals helped cricket make the national news. That is sort of the point, isn’t it?



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