The Hundred: Tech And Digital Are Key To English Cricket’s Domestic Revolution
“It’s just not cricket” is a common expression in England to describe behavior in everyday life that would be considered unfair or unsportsmanlike in the country’s national summer pastime.
Like other sports, cricket is played according to codified rules, but players are also expected to adhere to the ‘spirit’ of the game – a set of unwritten conventions and expected conduct.
Cricket’s influence on the national psyche can be attributed to the fact it was once the most popular sport in England.
Many soccer clubs were initially formed as offshoots of cricket clubs, and the County Championship (the premier domestic competition) could attract tens of thousands of paying spectators well into the post-war period.
But the sport’s popularity has waned in the second half of the 20th century. The England national cricket team still attracts full houses and column inches in the newspaper, and the invention of the shorter Twenty20 format can draw thousands to a match, but total attendance at County Championship games has stayed static for around 30 years. Meanwhile, the sport is disproportionately reliant on income from the England national team – most notably its television deal.
With participation levels falling, there was concern in the corridors of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). The British sporting press has constantly debated the wisdom of the ECB’s decision to move all cricket onto Pay-TV in 2006 – especially when Free-to-air (FTA) TV coverage of the 2005 Ashes series had made household names out of the England team.
The argument at the time was that the additional revenue from that TV deal would help secure the future of the game. But it is generally acknowledged that going behind a paywall has harmed awareness, compounded by shifts in the media and sporting landscapes in the subsequent decade and a half.
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The restoration of FTA coverage would no doubt help cricket’s cause, but it is no longer the silver bullet it may once have been. Such a single-faceted approach would ignore the advent of social media, smartphones and the increased competition from other forms of entertainment – not just sport.
When negotiating its most recent TV deal, the ECB decided it wanted to put some live England matches on FTA TV on the BBC and ensure highlights and clips were easily available on the BBC’s digital platforms and on social media.
But it also wanted to do something more radical. Not content with just mimicking hugely popular franchise-based Twenty20 competitions like the Indian Premier League and Australian Big Bash League (BBL), the ECB created an entirely new format designed to appeal to people with no previous interest in cricket – The Hundred.
Cricket has traditionally been played in ‘overs’ of six balls (pitches, if you will). For example, Twenty20 matches comprise two innings of 20 overs, which amounts to 120 balls in each period. The Hundred dispenses with this structure and terminology and instead permits 100 balls per inning (hence the name).
The idea is to simplify cricket and ensure matches last two and a half hours – a duration deemed more palatable for television audiences who won’t have to learn some of the more alienating elements of cricket’s lexicon.
Eight brand new teams have been created outside of the county structure, complete with a player draft system. Unsurprisingly this has led to some dissent among cricket’s core fan base, which might use the term “that’s not cricket” in an extremely literal sense.
Some have described the creation of The Hundred as a gamble that risks alienating cricket’s core audience – the fans that have supported England and their counties to varying degrees over the past few decades. Others view the creation of an entirely new format to be unnecessary, especially since it is not played at an international level, and lament the impact on other domestic competitions that have had to make way for the Hundred in the calendar.
However, the ECB does not view The Hundred as a gamble at all. It sees the competition as an essential part of its plan to grow the game in England.
“We want to grow the sport to be seen not just as a male sport and demystify it [for new fans],” ECB CEO Tom Harrison told me earlier this year. “The essence of cricket is the contest between bat and ball and [with The Hundred] we’re just adding a new chapter to something that is natural to the game. Cricket can reinvent itself.”
Naturally, digital is viewed as essential to reaching this new audience. All men’s and women’s Hundred matches will be broadcast live on TV, with the BBC showing up to 20 matches across its linear and online platforms. Meanwhile, Sky Sports will put 34 matches on its YouTube channel.
A mobile application will be made available, while social clips will be widely shared. Meanwhile, the broadcast presentation will be quite different from what fans have become accustomed to. New graphics, match predictors, and coverage that appeals to as wide an audience as possible will be seen.
Sky Sports has even been working on motion-capture-based augmented reality (AR) graphics that use technology from the world of video games. Digital avatars that accurately recreate the bowling and batting actions of some of the most famous players in the tournament will be used on TV and in The Hundred app.
The idea might seem gimmicky, but organizers are adamant that it demonstrates the convergence of sport, technology and entertainment to bring the game as close as possible to as many people as possible.
“We have worked in partnership with The Hundred on a fan-first approach we believe will open the game up to new audiences,” explained Bryan Henderson, Director of Cricket at Sky sports
“The Hundred will have a bespoke look and feel on TV and the avatars are a key part of what will make our coverage so dynamic. We have worked hard on every aspect of our presentation to ensure we have something for everyone, and I have every confidence the avatars will become one of the most popular aspects of our storytelling.”
“Hyper-real avatars will bring fans and players together on an unprecedented level. Imagine having a virtual Heather Knight, Saqib Mahmood or Ben Stokes showcasing their skills in your home – it’s incredibly exciting,” added Alison Crowe, Director of Digital and Data at the ECB.
“We can’t wait for fans to try it out through The Hundred app, where they can also vote for the match hero in each game, vote for the music a player will walk out to, and test their knowledge with some fun trivia – there’s something for all the family to get involved with.”
The Hundred will continue to be divisive even after the first ball is bowled on Wednesday when The Oval Invincibles and the Manchester Originals kick off the women’s competition live on BBC TV and online. But even the fact that a women’s game has been selected to open English cricket’s new dawn is notable in itself.
The competition is just one element, albeit a very critical one, of the wider digitization of English cricket and the long-term implications will take months and years to emerge. But there’s no doubt that the ECB has thrown the kitchen sink to establish a relevant, digital-first competition that ensures cricket remains a fixture of the British sporting landscape.