Cricket is more than a sport in India and England, but it has taken separate paths in the two countries. In India cricket is hugely popular and, in a manner of speaking, on a great wicket. Money is not an issue because cash rains on it in an endless monsoon downpour. There is no shortage of talent or support either.
In England, such riches are absent and cricket is struggling to remain relevant. Cash is scarce and kids don't think much of cricket. Recently it also suffered a serious blow with racism—institutional, not random— raising its ugly head.
In India cricket is considered a religion, an inaccurate description because there is little evidence to suggest it is noble, pure or sacred. Cricket interests everyone but it resembles a religion only in the blind devotion fans display towards their sporting idols. Undisputed fact: India loves cricketers, not cricket.
England is different because cricket is deeply respected and linked to traditional values of fair play, integrity, respect and gentlemanly conduct—all of which seem to be disappearing. More worrying, young England has abandoned cricket, choosing football and other sports.
The extent of this rejection is there for all to see. A recent survey revealed cricket was way down in the popularity of sports, youngsters struggled to name the England team captain and were clearly disinterested in an elitist sport. Cricket, they thought, was far too boring.
This depressing scenario was the backdrop of Freddie Flintoff's moving television series, the Field of Dreams, where he goes back to his roots in Preston, Lancashire, to revive cricket and persuade street children to play. The local lads were unimpressed—they had never even heard of Flintoff. Despite deep ignorance and apathy, Flintoff converts these non-believers and in a heartwarming turnaround, the children channelise their energies into cricket and stay away from the streets.
The ECB is fighting its own Flintoff-like battle to connect with a generation that is looking elsewhere for its sporting rush. To stem the slide, it funded special junior cricket schemes spending millions on grass root coaching and gifting equipment to schools.
The launch of the Hundred, the IPL's first cousin, was a bold step to arrest the steady decline. While other leagues lazily copy IPL, the Hundred chose to alter the template.
The rule changes to shrink the run time were relatively minor, cosmetic in nature to give the event a marketing makeover. Hundred in cricket is an important number and sounds nice but the tweak also has a practical subtext. All matches have to end in two and a half hours—enough time for an entertaining night out.
Sanjay Patel, the CEO, and the architect behind the tournament was driven by three key objectives. He was convinced cricket had to discover new fans by presenting them with a more attractive product. The Hundred was thus positioned as a social event for the entire family, with fun and music spicing up the cricket on offer.
Ticket rates were kept low—children till age 5 attended free, 6 to 15 paid just £5. The formula worked and in its first season, 55 % of people who bought tickets watched a cricket match for the first time.
The Hundred is nowhere near IPL's profitability levels but is commercially viable with strong fan and sponsor support. Unlike IPL it is wholly owned by ECB without any private ownership of teams. The eight competing teams are run by independent boards and each works with a budget given to it by ECB.
Will they, in the future, go commercial and invite private investment? For the moment there are no such plans but if this door was to open, even a crack, expect IPL franchise teams to come rushing in, ready to sign up.
But England's T20 league is also pursuing a more ambitious goal. Britain is a multi-cultural, multi-racial nation and the ECB wants cricket to reflect and embrace the changing demographics and cultural shifts in society. It is a conscious decision that cricket becomes more inclusive and attracts fans and players of different ethnicities into the mainstream.
Counties like Lancashire have specific plans to engage with players and fans from the subcontinent and ECB recognises that for the game to grow, and recover space ceded to other disciplines, cricket must reboot.
The Hundred was designed after extensive research and stakeholder feedback to present a friendly touch point to a new audience. Its start last season after two wasted years of Covid was successful, and the second edition starting next week seems equally promising.