The first English foray into Franchise Cricket was along way from being a success. The considerable cash reserves built up by the ECB over the years were frittered away on the Hundred without many obvious benefits in return. Of course, the Hundred is not without positives. It certainly shouldn’t be overlooked that it provided a new, and considerably bigger, platform for women’s cricket, as well as allowing the stars of the women’s game to earn a reasonably big pay cheque.
But ultimately, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that it was both badly thought out and badly executed. From the format to the graphics, precious little about the Hundred really worked and there’s no evidence that it drew a significant new audience to cricket. It also forced the Vitality Blast, a tournament that was already very successful and based on the county structure, to the margins whilst also leaving less time for County Championship matches.
It is hard to say exactly how far the scheduling issues with the County Championship have affected the fortunes of the English Test side, but the production line of batters from domestic to international level clearly has not been functioning as it should. Indeed, the miserable state of England’s red-ball cricket has already cost the coach and managing director their jobs, with the ECB’s chief executive departure also looming. One does not need to be a fortune teller to work out that more significant changes are also coming.
That will include a new calendar for the English domestic season, with the chief aim to prioritise quality over quantity. That will likely see the County Championship reformatted to three divisions, with the Professional Cricketers’ Association also keen to see more importance given to the domestic 50-over competition. Last season, it ran concurrently with the Hundred which had the effect of relegating it to little more than a contest between the counties’ second XI’s.
That was a difficult move to understand only two years removed from England’s famous World Cup triumph. After all, it would have made it just about impossible for England to ever win the World Cup again. But it reflected the fact that 50-over cricket has, for some time now, been a distant third in the list of priorities for cricket administrators, lacking the historical prestige of the red-ball game or the quick (if largely hollow) thrills of T20 cricket.
But relegating 50-over cricket to the margins is a mistake, and a big one at that, because it misses the unique value of the format. T20 cricket has, unsurprisingly, now reached a point where it is far more important to score runs quickly than it is to preserve wickets. Consequently, the era of the ‘anchor’ is just about finished, at least at the highest level. Big hitters are simply far more valuable to teams than the technically proficient. The result is that not only T20 players increasingly ill-equipped to play red-ball cricket, and vice versa, it is probably actively harmful to their careers to try and play both formats.
Which is where 50-over cricket comes in. The one day game offers a vital bridge between the longest and shortest format. Aggression is important, but players don’t need to score at a strike rate of 150 to be successful. There is time, at least for top-order players, to build an innings, rather than trying to simply swing as hard as they can at the first ball they face. But there is also a place for that sort of ‘crash, bang, wallop’ cricket at the death.
In other words, you can build a team containing both red-ball specialists and T20 specialists. The anchor and the finisher both have a role to play. In that respect, it is the best of both worlds. Equally, however, one day cricket has become rather staid. It is not a coincidence that the Royal London One Day Cup was so low on the list of the ECB’s priorities. But rather than try and invent a new format, the wiser choice was surely to experiment with one they already had.
Like it or loathe it, franchise cricket is here to stay. The Indian Premier League has been copied around the world for a reason. But is the IPL’s success based on the format or the fact that it attracts the best players in the world? Of course, those propositions aren’t mutually exclusive, but it is surely the latter more than the former. Which is why the ECB should take the bold decision to introduce a franchise competition for 50-over cricket over the course of the English summer.
There would need to be fewer teams than in the IPL and far fewer matches, but that is hardly an insurmountable obstacle. And the benefits to English cricket could be substantial. For one thing, it would doubtless help them maintain their position as the world’s pre-eminent one day side. It may also help the Test team, giving domestic batters the chance to test themselves against the world’s best in a format where wickets and runs are important.
It could also be introduced without doing undue damage to the county system, preserving the historical County Championship and the money-spinning Blast, at the expense of the largely unpopular Hundred. There would be challenges as well, not least the difficulty of selling a roughly eight-hour game to free-to-air television, but there is certainly an audience for the format. The massive support for sides at the Cricket World Cup points to that much.
It is long past time for English cricket to start making choices that move the game forward without ignoring where it has been. A franchise 50-over competition might just be the perfect place to start.
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