Westbury column: Launch of The Hundred has been a disaster thus far

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Isabelle Westbury

Piss-ups in breweries and two-car funerals. Domestic cricket tournaments in England are dangerously close to becoming another metaphor for failing to organise anything. Perhaps I’m wrong; years of capricious tinkering to the domestic summer schedule might be solved by the latest proposal.

First impressions, however, are not encouraging. And first impressions count. Just ask Her Majesty’s government. Only last week it was revealed that the Conservative party had arranged “Instagram lessons” for its MPs to help teach them how to use the photo-sharing app. They were introduced following some underwhelming, verging on painful, previous efforts.

John F Kennedy, almost 60 years ago, was widely believed to have won, or at least received, a sizeable bump in the polls on the back of his dapper, poised and articulate performance in the first televised presidential debate. Ever since, politicians have tried to harness the power of good visuals. “Perception is the only reality” is the slogan of Alan Clark, the former Ryanair press officer who now advises numerous high-profile Scottish ministers. Clark, far from being facetious, is a pragmatist. A good image does not detract from the substance of politics; instead it is essential for effective governance. Even in trying to pass a bill through parliament, should it acquire an untoward moniker, and it sticks, it can scupper it – think of the “poll tax”, or more recently, the “bedroom tax”.

If you want to achieve something, with public support, in any industry, it is important  to frame, and control, the narrative. Which is why the ECB’s bungled announcement of its proposed 100-ball franchise tournament is so puzzling.

“Trying to think how the ECB could have handled the floating of this new comp in a more farcical way,” tweeted Melinda Farrell, the ESPNcricinfo journalist. “It comes across that the people spruiking it haven’t spoken to each other and have zero faith in their own product and players. Bizarre.”

“The Hundred might be a genius idea (or it may not) but the ECB’s attempts at trying to convince people it makes sense must be a contender for the most bungled, confused, alienating ‘launch’ in UK sporting history,” added John Etheridge, cricket correspondent of The Sun. These aren’t cursory remarks from part-time spectators, but earnest reflections from seasoned professionals. It is not as if the ECB hasn’t had lessons to learn from either – be it Tim Lamb’s admonishment of then-sponsor Tetley Bitter in 1997, the Kevin Pietersen texting debacle, or more recently the handling of the Test team’s heavy-drinking portrayal in Australia. Etheridge makes a valid point – the 100-ball tournament might be very good plan, but it is being drowned in a sea of inept public relations.

Every statement made by the ECB on the tournament appears to have been contradicted, either by someone else within the organisation or, remarkably, by the same person in a previous comment. Last week, Tom Harrison, the ECB’s CEO, apparently told a PCA meeting that the 100-ball concept was not absolute. Indeed, the ECB announced only last month that a new working group had been formed to determine, among other things, “what other cricket should be played during the new ECB tournament” in 2020. ECB chairman Colin Graves contradicted all of this, telling the BBC this week that the tournament was “set in stone”.

Initially, the ECB announced that broadcasters had been “consulted” about the tournament, and had welcomed the new format, apparently encouraged by a more defined, and shorter, time frame to any other format. Then this week, we were told that it had “nothing to do with broadcasters at all”. Colin Graves again.

“We’ve talked to some high-profile players and we’ve obviously talked wider than that,” said Sanjay Patel, the managing director of the new competition on its announcement. Cue Graves, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which he told the paper that they had only “talked to the hierarchy of the PCA” and only now that the concept had been launched will they “talk to everybody”. In March 2017, when the franchise competition was proposed as a Twenty20 one, Graves said that all the ECB’s “research tells us that a new T20 competition” was what was required to boost engagement.

This week he told the BBC that the “research” had in fact informed the ECB that the “younger generation” wants “something different” – 100-ball cricket, evidently.

Even the ECB’s own initiative, All Stars Cricket, launched to inspire five to eight -year-olds to play cricket, appeared to be trolling Graves. Just as he was quoted as saying that young people are “not attracted to cricket”, the All Stars Cricket account tweeted that more than 50,000 children had signed up to take part in its scheme this summer. Timing.

Armando Iannucci, the creator of the political comedy television series The Thick of It, announced this year that the series would not be continuing because real-life politics had surpassed fictional satire. The same might be said of cricket’s administration. Even those valid arguments in favour of the tournament  don’t stand up to scrutiny. Take Graves’s assertion that a 100-ball “tournament will be worth £8m to county cricketers” – there is no reason why the same cannot be said of a franchise Twenty20 tournament.

All of the bungling, the confusion and the miscommunication draws criticism and cynicism. Cynicism that all of the hot-air in fact obfuscates the real reason behind a new format – to appease county boards already wary of the threat of the franchise tournament.

One of the most jarring elements of the whole affair is that it has detracted from some hugely positive initiatives from the ECB in recent months. All Stars Cricket is one. The hosting of the Women’s World Cup last year is

another – smoothly run, well communicated and targeted at a whole new demographic of cricket fans. How difficult is it to learn from this? More recently the publication of the ECB’s South Asian Action Plan is a hugely positive step towards engaging a hitherto neglected demographic and is the product of detailed and wide-ranging research. Its launch, unfortunately, has been largely overshadowed by the 100-ball fiasco.

The ECB asserts that it is not worried by the negative press that it has received, insisting that the cricket media and current fans giving it so much grief are not those it is trying to engage. Even if this is the case, it seems a strange tactic to isolate and anger those who are already onside. If we won’t positively publicise cricket, who will?

I am yet to meet someone truly engaged with the game who does not hope that new initiatives, whatever they might be, succeed in attracting new players, spectators and fans to cricket. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, perceptions matter. If this is the manner in which a simple announcement has been delivered, then I am genuinely fearful about how this tournament will be run, and how it can succeed.

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