Wyatt’s Words, The Hundred – Coming to a town not necessarily near you

Julian Wyatt's third column for SomersetNorth provides a fascinating take on the ECB's new competition from a player's point of view

Julian Wyatt

Julian Wyatt played for Somerset from 1983 to 1989. He played 69 first-class matches totalling just under 3,000 runs with a highest score of 145. After leaving Somerset he went on to success with Devon and captained a young Marcus Trescothick at Keynsham Cricket Club. Julian now coaches cricketers and coaches of all ages at perfectmomentsmastercoaching.com

Next season sees the introduction of a new cricket competition. Unless you’ve been hiding in a box, you will be pretty aware of this by now as feelings surrounding its initiation are mixed. Very mixed. The ECB suggest they are seeking a new cricket audience. Those hidden inside the box will fit their market for sure. I’m still struggling to come to terms with the ‘new audience’, as I can’t quite see why someone who didn’t already like cricket, is going to have their head turned by this new format. Time will tell.

In all honesty I’m still quite confused as to so much about the new competition. I may not have followed it as diligently as others, but I only found out last weekend that the game will be contested with ten x ten ball overs, which can be shared between two bowlers. As someone said, “is the pitch still twenty two yards long”? You would think that might be a stupid question – I fear not! I presume new rules will come to light over the next few months. How long before substitute batters, bowlers and specialist fielders are permitted? 

Cricket has a deep and rich history. Records are a significant part of cricket. I have a first-class record that was important to me. I have a one-day record that was also important, although less so, as the real judgement of your quality as a cricketer seemed to be more associated with how you performed in first-class cricket. I have no T20 record and I will have no 100 record. I presume a new statistical category will be introduced to gauge the success of players within this new format? Although, as yet, it will have nothing to be compared to as the competition will be unique, only be played in England and Wales. 

As a player, had I been selected, clearly I would embrace it and its financial benefit would be more than welcome. How can any player ignore the £30,000-£125,000 windfall for such a short period of time? The area I might find most difficult is learning to play for another team professionally. I was a Somerset boy who wanted to play for Somerset. A huge part of my motivation was simply knowing that I represented Somerset and was now alongside other players that I had supported from afar. I was now a small part of a clubs history that was incredibly important to me. Learning to develop an allegiance to the team you have just been selected for might take a little longer. As a professional, you would be able to draw on your own cricketing ambitions and perform a role expected of you. I’m not sure how it might work being selected for a different team each year though? It works in other countries, so I guess players will adapt here too. Maybe the recognition that its simply entertainment and in part, a circus, might help focus the player on ‘just do it’. 

I can’t speak for cricketers from other counties, but the desire to play for Somerset as West Countrymen is not something to take lightly. Having played against cricketers from other counties though, I have always sensed a pride for the club / badge that they represent. In recent years, players have moved between counties more readily than might have once been the case. However, cricket in this country has a rich and long history. It’s not going to be easy embracing the new format where players and supporters are being asked to create a new history. New supporters may find it easy, but who will they gravitate towards outside of ‘The Hundred’ opening hours? Or, will that be their cricket season? And if so, how much will these new supporters add to cricket as a whole?  

In junior development terms, youngsters are introduced to the game via new schemes regularly and numbers are high. What is less reported is the player fallout from fourteen upwards. It is a whopping sixty percent! So whilst the ‘new supporter’ is introduced to the Hundred, what is the retention plan beyond that? 

I am finding it hard to find any reason to support Welsh Fire. They were initially suggested as representative of Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Somerset. There is one Somerset lad in their line-up, one Glamorgan player and two from Gloucs. As for the Welsh Fire? I can’t see how this team can possibly reflect the region I thought it was designed to represent. But then, who’s picking the teams? Looking at the breakdown of most teams, very few seem to have a local feel to them. I’m sure players will adapt and enjoy the event. What the long-term impact may be is anyone’s guess at the moment.

What happens to the players left behind? Once again, as professionals, they will get on with it. Some will question, “why wasn’t I picked”? And rightly so. The ‘get on with it’ will have a feeling of disappointment though and playing in a dumbed-down fifty over competition won’t help. The opportunity to have a great competition will certainly help though. The competition will be lacking depth and therefore batters and bowlers alike will seize their chance and fill their boots. The bottom line is that it is still a competition to be won and therefore the goal will still be the same as any other competition.

What will help is the recognition that via the county T20 competition, you are only one season or a handful of performances away from selection to the Hundred next year. And this will be a huge motivation. The awareness that one or two outstanding games could lead to a £100k windfall will act as an enormous driving force for players. Therefore, what format will players commit their attention? Another move away from red ball values? 

So, I return to the long -term impact from my perspective. What will players do in the future? Obviously earning a county contract has to be the first priority. Behind that there will always be an awareness of where the real money is. And therefore, what will future players think they will need to do to earn that money? I recall a young Devonian several years ago. He was widely regarded as a leading talent at u15 and selected as part of an ECB development programme. Counties fought over his signing. I had a coaching session with him as a seventeen year-old, not long after he had signed for one of the counties that had chased him. All he could focus on was developing a game to play IPL cricket. He hadn’t even played one second eleven game at that point. The cart was well and truly ahead of the horse. His game regressed horribly. He joined us at Exeter University two years later and struggled to make it into the first team. His love for cricket had died and his mind had turned to other things. He had become technically confused and his basic structure had been destroyed.

I fear we have been heading in that direction for many years. The modern outstanding white ball player was developed with structure and basic foundations first. They added ‘new skills’ as older cricketers. This lad, added new skills too soon. His game still wasn’t formed enough. The belief that a seventeen year old may have harnessed his basics is ignorant at best. He proved beyond doubt that he wasn’t ready to move on to the next level yet.

The critics of the lazy approach to batting in red ball cricket are many. I am one. The twenty20 encourages even more innovation from a young age. The Hundred and its potential earnings will ensure players (and coaches) will pursue this approach even more readily. David Warner was a twenty20 player first and he entered the game from a completely different direction. He is an exception and it is the exception that proves the rule. The current view seems to be following the path of the exception. Surely that’s nothing more than a gamble.

My view is we are dragging the quality of the game lower and lower. It was mentioned recently that golf needs to encourage more players and to do that the game must become easier. Easier being more exciting? The plan being to make the hole bigger. If that becomes the case, it’s highly likely that my handicap would be halved overnight. Have I become a better golfer? Of course not. The game has become easier, cheaper. I believe this is happening in cricket. Smaller boundaries, non-moving balls, huge bats and shorter formats to excuse error. It doesn’t matter in white ball games. Apparently, a ball disappearing into a crowd sat sixty to seventy meters away is entertainment? What role for the bowler in this brave new world? 

I genuinely believe that if this path is followed we will see fewer and fewer quality batters. I believe players are still good enough if they wanted to commit their time to long game formats. But the ‘real money’ is elsewhere. The fifty over competition (in England) has been downgraded. The county championship largely bookends the season. T20 and The Hundred is all that’s being truly sold. The impression is everything is becoming shorter and shorter. What next T10? Oh yes, that’s already being played. How about T8? So what will the future player believe is cricket?

When the football world cup was played in the USA, prior to the star of the tournament the hosts asked FIFA to make the goals bigger so there would be more goals and therefore more entertainment to the potential new supporters in the USA. FIFA said no. I have no doubt the ICC or ECB would have thought long and hard!

My view is that once you start dumbing down only one thing happens. Cricket is being bastardised and dumbed down year in year out. The test series between England and Australia showed very few batters with an appreciation for batting time. Even our best batter has openly stated that batting time is an historical test cricket value. It’s odd that his record is in gradual decline whilst he follows this approach. The bowling quality was decent, but how good did it have to be? Jason Roy went from hero to zero in a few short weeks. He was hung out to dry in many ways. It was a totally unfair ask of him. An outstanding non-ball moving, small boundary ball striker was asked to combat red ball skilled practitioners. What chance did he have? But what does it matter? 

I must admit I am still confused by the whole thing. I don’t believe a city based format is what we need in this country. The T20 has worked and appears a very sellable product. I’m struggling to see the real value of this new competition and fear there is great risk attached to it, not least the long-term future for many first-class counties.

I’m stuck with lots of unanswered questions. I guess they will be answered, in part, next season and we will all be clearer. There will be support. Some current supporters and some new ones, although maybe not as many as the ECB think. There is huge opposition and that has to be a major worry for the ECB. Folk weren’t keen on the T20 when it was introduced, but the opposition was nothing like it is now and that is largely due to the city based format. 

How long will the ECB want to pay eighteen counties £1.3m each year? Irrespective of this money, how long will the counties want their grounds unattended as they pursue a downgraded competition whilst the carnival is played at the same time? How long will the competition work if there is no comparative competition internationally? What will the impact be within counties internally, with teams being broken up mid-season? I am meeting up with Tom Abell for a coffee and catch up in a week or so and I’ll be fascinated to hear what he thinks. He’s buying though!

I’m desperately trying to keep an open mind (honestly), but I have so many underlying concerns. Time will tell and the ECB will do whatever they can to make it work. Rightly so. Change is always necessary, but not all change is good. Brexit anyone?