By Ben Fleming
Running any type of company over the last year from the confines of your own home is a difficult task for even the most accomplished businessman. Now try imagining that business being the launch of a new, franchise-based, first of its kind, multi-million-pound cricket competition. Doesn’t sound easy, does it?
Rob Hillman, The Hundred’s Head of Operations, smirks as he tries to explain to me the task that has been presented to him over the last year during this pandemic.
“It’s not been an easy ride, I’ll admit. But, like most, we’ve adapted and found a way.”
Rob talks to Palatinate the day after the draft which saw the eight male and female teams finalised for the competition’s debut season. International stars Kagiso Rabada and Nicholas Pooran were drafted to join other high-profile cricketers such as Ben Stokes, David Warner and Kieran Pollard who already secured their places in last year’s draft.
For Hillman, the draft and “the calibre of player that we’ve been able to attract from all around the world to play in this competition is a fantastic signal of intent.
“These teams are filled with quality cricketers who have proved it time and again on the domestic and international scene. What you will see is a lot of quality cricket. Good pitches, good weather and so many good cricketers on show.”
The women’s tournament is no different. Australians Alyssa Healy and Meg Lanning, two of the world’s premier talents, will be playing for Welsh Fire and Northern Superchargers, respectively. Alongside equal prize money for both sides of the tournament, the ECB are keen to use this as a further springboard for the ever-growing female game.
“It’s [the high-profile women’s players] hugely important and actually the postponement has meant a bit of a rethink for 2021 which, in a sense, only accentuates that comment. Now they [the women’s teams] are going to be playing on the same day in the same ground [as the men]. There will be huge crossover for squads and in terms of the opportunities for women’s players in this country, it will take it to another level.”
With all this hype slowly bubbling around the tournament, and the years of planningthat has gone into building this tournament, the greatest disappointment for Hillman was to not see that all come to fruition last year, with the tournament’s inaugural season abruptly postponed amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“Looking back, it was obviously a huge shame but the situation that we were all facing dictated that and actually, it was a remarkably straight forward decision.
When we first understood the impact of Covid-19 and it became apparent we might not even be able to play any international cricket at all, it made it very straightforward to take the decision not to play given all the moving parts that were in place.”
The following lockdowns in November and January represented further stumbling blocks for the ECB. However, as Hillman notes, following the successful end to the summer for cricket, this wasn’t a cause for concern.
“We felt from pretty early on that we would absolutely be delivering The Hundred in pretty much any circumstance this summer. We have a great public policy team at the ECB that work very closely with DCMS and the government.
We are still planning for lots of different scenarios, whether that is some form of bubbling or hopefully a lot less restrictive and with some form of testing. We don’t know yet, but we have plans that cater to plenty of scenarios.” Fortunately, with the latest announcements, and the possibility of fans being allowed in stadiums, which Rob sees as a “hugely welcome boost to the game,” The Hundred looks set to take centre stage in the summer cricketing calendar. What remains to be seen is whether it can deliver on its promise to grow the game amongst audiences where it’s most needed.
“Cricket is in a great place but we want to carry on building on that. Not everybody can afford a day at the Test cricket in terms of pounds out of their pockets or hours out of their day so it’s really important that we believe in this competition and that it will do a great job in widening the net of people who follow cricket.”
Part of that plan to reach a new audience is the free-to-air element of the tournament, The Hundred look set to have matches live on BBC as well as Sky.
“It’s really important to have that balance with Sky and BBC. Sky are a phenomenal broadcaster and continue to do amazing things for English cricket. Crucially, it’s about striking a balance between their [Sky’s] production and quality aligned with a free-to-air plan and that’s a really strong mix.”
There has been criticism from cricket’s more traditional fans, but Rob and the ECB aren’t keen to let that deter them as they look to forge a new future for English cricket.
“There was a huge opposition to t20 when that came in 18 years ago and when the Blast started and there still is opposition to white-ball cricket, but innovation is at the heart of what we are doing.”
“Crucially, we believe in it. We’ve got broadcasters who believe in it and cricketers that believe in it – you can’t ask for more than that.”