The “16.4”

It is time to start considering the impact this new competition (the 16.4) will have on English domestic cricket in 2020.

The T16.4, A Case of the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”?

I plan to write a piece later in the month pulling together the comments that have been sent to me either on social media or by email to try to collate the views of Somerset supporters. If you want to comment, either positively or negatively on the new completion, please do let me have it (!) I have upgraded the site this week to make it easier to share and comment on any articles that are posted, please note the new icons and the Facebook comment section at the bottom of each piece.

I feel very strongly about this competition and the damage that it and the ECB are doing to the county game and want to do what I can to make our voices heard. I wrote a piece for Being Outside Cricket midway through the 2018 season which attempted to highlight my concerns in what we had heard up to that point. Nothing that has been revealed since has eased my worries, in fact that have been significantly heightened.

So to start the ball rolling and I hope get the debate going I have revisited my piece from last year as follows.

The hundred, or as it will be called on SomersetNorth thanks to Tim Symes the “T16.4” is a looming reality. The draft is underway the kit colours and sponsors have been announced. We already know the format, the locations, the team names and the coaches. We are also led to believe there will be non-playing players! 

Last summer I wrote, “Hardly a day seems to go by without either another ECB briefing providing yet more surreal details of their proposed new “Hundred” competition or a respected voice adding to the landslide of criticism descending upon the heads of the ECB’s top brass.”

What prompted me to write last year was a piece by Scyld Berry criticising of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Writing in the Daily Telegraph Berry set out his case that the ECB is failing in its responsibility to govern cricket’s future and is not administering the present terribly well either. From what I have seen the actions of the ECB in the last 15 months have only exacerbated the truth of Berry’s words.

What the Telegraph article didn’t address was the impact the new competition will have on the first-class counties and the stark differences between the eight that will host the new franchises and the ten that won’t.

The starting point for Berry’s attack on the ECB was the news that the board was countenancing moving away from the concept of the over in its new competition. We saw some trial games at the end of last season which confirmed the format and so the ECB decided to run with it.  It now seems inevitable that from 2020 a large part of the cricketing summer will be taken up by something that, literally, is not cricket.

The Board has been very active in promoting this as a competition that will attract a new audience. It said it had identified a target audience that currently does not engage with cricket but this was before the superb summer of cricket which we know had many people engaged in cricket in a way that has not happened since 2005. There have been countless stories of non-cricket fans being gripped by the World Cup Final and the last afternoon of the Headingley test and we have seen record attendances at T20 games with a much wider demographic than previously seen. You have to wonder whether there is such a target audience after 2019?

There is another important point here. If, as the ECB hope, the new competition attracts a new audience the fact that it is a completely different format which dispenses with much of the traditional structure of cricket, the new fans will then have to be educated to transfer to the more traditional format of the game. Hard as it is for many of us who were introduced to cricket by our parents at a very young age to appreciate, cricket is not the easiest game to comprehend.

I have worked in America a lot in the past and been to many many baseball games. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable in that sport but it took a good number of after work evenings spent with colleagues who have watched baseball since their childhood to get sufficient grasp of the game to understand the game beyond the superficial level. When the conversation turned to cricket it was far from easy to reciprocate. I see the Hundred as being such a bastardisation of cricket that a similar transfer will be required to turn the newly acquired fans into county regulars. That is if they exist at all!

Whichever way you look at it the England and Wales Cricket Board is at a moral crossroads. One where there is the very real prospect that the decisions it has taken will change the face of county cricket forever and end the existence of a number of county clubs while severely damaging many others. Many argue that to use the words moral and ECB in the same sentence but it seems fair to say that over the last year the debate seems to have shifted from whether the new competition will be the beginning of the end for a number of counties to when and how many.

the damage the selection would do to an already beleaguered county championship.

I know I am not alone in wondering it very strange that the ECB, who in the not too distant past, were commissioning reports with the aim of making the County Championship the best it could be to ensure a healthy English test side, are now actively undermining and marginalising the premier county competition? 

Even more remarkably, having won the 50 over World Cup in July, the Board had already announced a downgrading of the domestic 50-over competition to a “developmental” one timed to run alongside the Hundred. You have to wonder how up and coming white ball cricketers like Tom Banton will get experience at 50 over cricket outside international games and how such players will prove their worth in this format to the selectors. Don’t expect a repeat of England’s success any time soon.

The ECB have chosen to invest heavily in The Hundred. Rumours abound that the Board’s reserves have been severely depleted so having “bet the family farm” on the new competition the Board cannot afford it to fail. The concern for a number of the non-hundred counties that they now cannot win.

If the new competition is a success the chances of county cricket being reduced to 10 or even 8 teams increases as the board aligns all formats and competitions to the new franchises. You can hear the ECB speak of “streamlining” and “logical progression for the game” already. If the format fails the Board will be severely financially impaired and unable to support the “smaller” counties as it has been doing.  

Some might argue that we already have a distinction between the test and non-test playing grounds and that the new competition is merely an extension of this arrangement. Worryingly that appears not to be the case. The financial arrangements for the distribution of funds from the Hundred will almost certainly not mirror the process for test revenues

Somerset sit on the cusp of this whole debate. Widely seen as the 9th county. I am very very worried about the financial implications for my county club of the new competition and funding arrangements. 

Somerset is a very well-run club. A county which has, over the past 10 to 15 years created a financially stable model of how county clubs should be run. A model which has allied on-field consistency (although disappointingly little silverware to show for it) with the redevelopment of the County Ground. A redevelopment which has retained the feel of a county cricket ground while modernising the facilities to a level that were unrecognisable at the turn of the century.

This development has been achieved within the existing financial structure of the county game and has been adapted to maximise the benefit from the many changes in the structure of county cricket that we have seen in the last decade. The funding model takes advantage of the excellent support the club boasts and increasingly significant off-field revenue streams to operate independent of any central hand-outs.

Based on what we know at present, the new competition is likely to mean a significant part of the summer will see a number of the county’s best players unavailable. Further the control Somerset have over members of their squad will be significantly reduced. 

Somerset’s deeply loyal, regionalised, hard-core support will I am sure continue to support the county in all formats and we may well come to see the County Ground as a “beacon for the resistance”. There is clearly very little desire to travel to Cardiff! But other counties are less likely to be so fortunate.

The extent to which the Hundred will compromise the finances of the other ten clubs makes you wonder if this is all part of the Board’s master plan. You create a competition which so compromises those counties financially that they are unable to continue and the rationalisation of the county game becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s not a huge stretch to see that within three or four years of the new competition being set up the “haves”, having attracted and retained the cream of the player pool, will occupy division one of the championship. A have-not county will have to punch significantly above its weight in a big way to compete.

Clubs such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire will certainly see the Hundred as a solution to the huge debt burden, accrued over the past decade as they have re-developed their grounds and been forced to pay inflated fees to hose internationals. These clubs cannot afford to forgo the riches their new franchises will generate even. 

The ECB seems to be blind to how healthy the county game is at present. A health that has been achieve despite not because of the game’s leadership. The evidence of attendance levels for county championship games does not necessarily indicate a successful product the county game now operates at an entirely different level, being consumed more away from the grounds than at them. The recent developments of live-streaming and BBC local radio commentaries has seen astonishing levels of engagement with those unable to get to as many games as they would like. I cannot, in my lifetime, think of a county championship that better engages with its supporters than the current iteration. 

Dan Norcross one more “county-wise” of the BBC TMS team sees no reason to have a fourth competition. His idea would be to create a two division blast competition with promotion and relegation play-offs. The top tier of 8 teams could operate in much the same way as the franchises are proposed to, those games would be available free-to-air in the same way that the new competition will be and the marketing budget currently being poured down the hungry throat of The Hundred could be used to promote the Blast and by extension the wider county game. 

You would assume this option was considered within the offices of the ECB so why has it not been adopted. My suspicious mind thinks that the real motives of the 100 are far different from those openly propagated and do not look good for the county game as a whole.

So, it is my contention that the consequences of the ECB’s new lovechild will be far more far-reaching than have been debated so far. I don’t have any confidence in the ECB’s working party to come up with any solutions to any of the problems this new competition presents. Despite it being chaired by the chief executive of Leicestershire.   

Many of us who support the poor-relation non-test hosting clubs will see this as the ECB seeking a way of achieving what it hoped the two-division county championship has failed to deliver. There is no doubt in my mind that they wish to see the counties on the test circuit playing in division one and the “lesser lights” occupying the bottom tier.

It is a source of great pride to Somerset as a club that we have been the county that has remained in Division One the longest and seen all the test host counties go down in that time while finishing second (!) five times in the past decade. But that, sadly may count for nothing in the not too distant future.

Of course next season will bring the reality that at present we can only speculate upon. The question has to be, will the counties, when they see the new set up in action remain acquiescent or will they rebel? If things don’t go well could we see a Premier League style break-away where the counties decide to take control of the domestic game away from the board? It is not as far-fetched a notion as might appear at first sight. Certainly not if the ECB’s headlong rush toward a new structure, irrespective of its wider consequences, drives a massive wedge through the county game and the existing cricketing and financial structures. 

One thing is beyond doubt, the ECB is failing in its responsibility to the domestic game. We the supporters need to make our voices heard in any way we can. If you haven’t already I encourage you to follow @OpposeThe100 on twitter as they appear to have the best chance of getting the ear of the ECB but also, if you think it worthy, please share and promote this piece on social media and use the #OpposeThe100 hashtag.

Thank you.