The format has divided traditional supporters of the game, but what about those coming to cricket for the first time?
"Is it first to 100, then?" asks Marisa as we take our seats. No, I say. Each team gets a hundred balls, to score as many runs as they can.
Marisa looks satisfied with this. Her husband, Luke, has downloaded the app and is using it to learn about other rules, like the powerplay. He's still looking at it when Naomi Dattani is run out off the sixth ball of the innings. His head jerks up frantically: "What'd I miss?" I explain that one of the London Spirit batters is out, and now she has to sit back down and let someone else have a go.
"And does that mean she can't field now?"
The Hundred, England's new domestic tournament, landed in July like an alien hovercraft, showering gathered onlookers with fireworks and flame. Everyone knew the invasion was imminent. Since the Hundred was first mooted, it has been a shadowy force inspiring fear and division among cricket's most ardent followers. Newspapers issued dire warnings of the damage it could wreak, and for four years many privately hoped that it would go away. But even Covid couldn't stop its inexorable inevitability. It was like Brexit, really, except nobody voted for it.
One of the most common, and angrily put, questions about the Hundred has always been: what's the point? Twenty20 cricket already exists; try as you might to spin it as a new format, the Hundred is essentially a 20-over game with 20 fewer balls. And England's domestic T20 tournament, the Vitality Blast, is already popular, pulling in the county faithful and fair-weather fans alike. The English season had to be disembowelled to make space for this latest transplant, a foreign object stuffed ham-fistedly among the vital organs of the international schedule and sewn back up with a shrug: let's see how that takes…
The author (left) enjoying a game with her cousin Louise
© Emma John
The author (left) enjoying a game with her cousin Louise © Emma John
The inventors of the Hundred, the ECB, assured the doubters that this was a mission, not a cash grab. Its purpose was to win cricket a new audience, one that didn't watch T20 or ODIs, that wouldn't even be able to tell you what those words mean. T20 was invented to capture a younger sports-loving audience - to find something millennials could squeeze into their busy schedules and short attention spans, and share on their social media feeds. The Hundred is meant to make cricket not just shorter but more accessible and inclusive. Which is a goal that is all but impossible to object to; but the ECB's reputation now depends on fulfilling it.
Deepti Sharma reaches for a wide ball and almost does the splits with the effort. The ball spins past her legs and into the keeper's hands, who whips off the bails. "I'm a big fan of the lights on the stumps," says Marisa.
"I like the little birds on the grass," says Luke. "They're taking advantage of the powerplay." Spirit are in trouble now, 40 for 4, although that's not what's on the scoreboard. The big screen gives only the number of runs scored and the number of balls bowled.
We have come to this game not because Marisa and Luke were curious about the new tournament but because I suggested it. When I mentioned the Hundred to various friends a week before it was due to begin - after a month of build-up and adverts on the television and the sides of buses - they all looked at me blankly. They had, they insisted, never heard of it.
But Marisa and Luke were game to try something new. "Go on," they said. "Let's go see some of this One Hundred."
Get set, go: England's star allrounder Nat Sciver bowls to Eve Jones at Trent Bridge
Tim Goode / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Get set, go: England's star allrounder Nat Sciver bowls to Eve Jones at Trent Bridge Tim Goode / © PA Photos/Getty Images
The Hundred's grand opening was a women's match, shown live on the BBC. The crowd of 7395 was a record for a standalone domestic match in the professional women's game, even though some stands still looked relatively empty in a big stadium like The Oval. The TV coverage was eager and slightly nervous; there were lots of in-game interviews with the young children who were bouncing around with excitement, cricket-literate and wearing merch or replica shirts - this wasn't their first encounter with the game. But the parents looked thrilled to see them so happy, or perhaps just to get them out of the house.
By the time she went to Edgbaston to watch Birmingham Phoenix, eight-year-old Kitty was a Hundred aficionado. This was her second live game. "The main reason I bought the tickets was because we'd sat and watched it on the telly," said her mum, Jo, "and Kitty was leaping around the spare room, cheering!" She'd never seen her daughter show any interest in watching sport before, she said, apart from the last five minutes of the 2019 World Cup final, "but that was more of an accident than anything".
Kitty had been playing Dynamos Cricket for a couple of years, a soft-ball version developed by the ECB for kids of primary-school age, and she was now fully committed to the Hundred. When she and her mum were too busy with summer holiday activities to watch the games live, they recorded them and watched them later. The ground was bigger and noisier than she expected from the TV, but she loved it - the way the flame jets made the crowd look shimmery, the cool music when someone hit a four or a six. I asked her if she'd be trying to persuade her mum her to another game. "I'd do this every day if I could!"
Wham, bam, thank you, fam: the organisers have been particular in their focus on creating a family-friendly atmosphere at the Hundred
Steven Paston / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Wham, bam, thank you, fam: the organisers have been particular in their focus on creating a family-friendly atmosphere at the Hundred Steven Paston / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Jo was impressed too. "I think they've done it really well. My grandpa was very into cricket but failed to persuade me and my sisters to show an interest because we didn't have the attention span and it always seemed a bit quiet." It felt like they'd gone all out to involve the kids, here, she said. "You don't feel like you have to sit and whisper over a scorecard."
At the end of the first week of the tournament, the ECB announced that 83% of tickets had already been sold for the whole competition, with around 89,000 of those children's tickets. More than a fifth of the first-week ticket purchases were for children, and nearly a quarter of the total were women.
The most triumphant numbers, of course, were saved for the TV audiences. That opening game, Oval Invincibles vs Manchester Originals, was the most watched women's cricket match in UK history. A combined 8.54 million tuned into the 16 games broadcast in week one; more than a third of those hadn't watched any live cricket on the television in the past year. Such figures are, of course, double-edged. You can claim them as a triumph for the tournament or you can use them as proof that people will give cricket a go - in any form - if you make it available on free-to-air television.
In the interval between the men's and women's games, I take a wander around the ground and hear someone call my name. It's a young friend I've tried in the past to explain cricket to, without success. I'm surprised to see her here; she said a couple of mates had "dragged her along". I realise, guiltily, that's what I've done to Marisa and Luke.
It's not just cricket: musical act Self Esteem perform during a game at Headingley
Stu Forster / © Getty Images
It's not just cricket: musical act Self Esteem perform during a game at Headingley Stu Forster / © Getty Images
She says she's enjoying herself, even if "it feels like someone got a small Shoreditch marketing consultancy to fire ideas at them and they haven't said no to a single one". She hasn't quite decided whether she feels patronised or not; on the plus side, none of this has felt like cricket at all.
The music, the food trucks, the little games they got people doing in the stands when the players changed ends, remind her of something quite different from her student days: "it's just like Disco Bingo." I ask her if she thinks she'll watch more cricket in the future, and she shakes her head. "To be honest," she says, "I haven't understood much more than the fours and the sixes." The end of the Southern Brave innings was easy enough to follow. They needed one run off the last ten balls.
Lara is 17 years old; her father is a huge cricket fan, but it had seemed impenetrable to her until lockdown. Stuck at home with a burning teenage curiosity and little to do, she'd been intrigued by the Test matches between India and England that Channel Four were showing in March. "It took me about two days to get what was going on," she said, "but then I was hooked."
By the time the Hundred came around, Lara wasn't just a cricket convert, she was a zealot. She'd joined her local cricket club and was desperate to go to see her new England heroes, both the men and the women, on the field. But she doesn't live near a county ground, and tickets to Test matches don't come cheap. She'd never seen a game live when some of the women at her cricket club decided to organise a trip to a Trent Rockets game.
Is it lit: the Hundred has tried to attract new fans to the game, but are they the ones who are going to make it a success?
Harry Trump / © Getty Images
Is it lit: the Hundred has tried to attract new fans to the game, but are they the ones who are going to make it a success? Harry Trump / © Getty Images
It was 100 miles away, and Lara had her reservations. From the garish outfits to the neon-pink graphics, the aesthetics and vibe she got from the TV suggested it would be an event for little kids, not for her. "I thought the atmosphere at the women's match would be a bit dead, too," she says. "But I was pleasantly surprised."
There was no real local team for her to support, but the app made you pick your favourite, and now she's a Trent Rockets supporter, almost by accident. "They've just got such great players - Nat Sciver, Kathryn Bryce, Rachel Priest," says Lara. "The quality of cricket was really good, even in the men's team. I'd been a bit worried the men wouldn't take it very seriously."
At the same game as Lara were Emily, with her young son and daughter. Her husband had got her into cricket when she moved here from San Francisco, but they'd never taken their kids before. One-dayers were too long, and T20 had always struck her as for "adults who couldn't stand the length of Test cricket".
"They've made this family-centric," said Emily. "I don't think T20 felt different enough - it lacked that focus to get the kids involved." It made a big difference to her, as a mother, that the women's game that opened the double-header encouraged a safer, less tribal, atmosphere than other sporting events she'd been to - and that the ground had non-drinking sections. "I think they've pitched it to the right audience and we've listened and thought, 'Right, this is for us then, let's go.'"
Merch splurge: the fact that teams don't have entrenched fan bases hasn't affected replica kit sales
Zac Goodwin / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Merch splurge: the fact that teams don't have entrenched fan bases hasn't affected replica kit sales Zac Goodwin / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Not everyone has got the message, of course. In London, especially, some of the men's games continued to attract the boisterous, post-work drinking crowds that have been a feature of the late-night Blast games. One week into the tournament, after some boozy scenes that were definitely not what the tournament organisers had wished for, Lord's made a last-minute change to their alcohol policy. Ticket holders were banned from bringing it into the ground, and the bars were closed early.
By the time men have taken the field, Luke has decided he's supporting the away team. "I know Londoners," he says, cynically. "I've never much liked our spirit." He watches as his new team - "Southern Swerve," as he likes to call Southern Brave - put up a good score, and rattle through the home side's defences.
"Do they ever declare?" asks Marisa. "Not in this form of the game," I say, "because you can never have too many runs."
"I didn't mean the team that bats first," says Marisa. "I mean the team that came out second. They're clearly not going to make the total. Can't they just declare their innings and give up?"
Plenty of counties will argue that they had been doing their own work to target a new young audience even before the Hundred came along. "We've always set up Trent Bridge as a family-first ground," says Michael Temple, Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club's commercial director. But even he has been impressed by the instant impact of the Hundred. The "blue touch paper", as he calls it, was the opening-night match on the BBC. "Our ticket sales went ballistic after that, and we've now sold out our final two games, which we hadn't forecast to do."
Keep it simple: a minimalist scoreboard at Headingley
Stu Forster / © Getty Images
Keep it simple: a minimalist scoreboard at Headingley Stu Forster / © Getty Images
Merchandise sales, too, have taken clubs by surprise - no one was quite expecting the "immediate fandom" that would sell out caps for teams that had never previously existed. On the phone from Livingston in Scotland, Liz tells me that she and her wife Caitlin are excitedly waiting for their Oval Invincibles caps to arrive. "I had hoped that some of the games would be a bit further north," she says. "They've got Welsh Fire, but nothing north of the border."
Previously, the only other game Liz had persuaded Caitlin to watch was the 2019 World Cup final, "and she'd left before the Super Over because she was bored". Then in October 2019, Caitlin spotted the draft on the television schedule. "She's a massive NFL fan, so she said, is it a bit like that? And I said it's exactly like that." They watched the draft together, and when - two years later - the tournament showed up on TV, Caitlin remembered, and sat down for a watch. She's now such a convert to the women's game that she has agreed their newly adopted child can wear an England cricket shirt. Which is some concession from a proud Scotswoman.
There's a youthful presenter talking to a DJ on the big screen, but you can't really make out their conversation over the PA. Marisa and Luke and I don't mind that, particularly. We're not sure that anything they're saying is really meant for us.
The kids, on the other hand, go genuinely nuts when they find they've been caught on camera, or are encouraged to dance, or hit a ball into the stand behind them. There are a couple of cousins sitting behind us, aged seven and nine, and every time a batter gets the ball off the square, we hear a "good shot!" Their fathers aren't cricket followers - they were just looking for something outdoors and Covid-safe to do in the summer holidays. Marisa and Luke explain that they don't know much about the game either. "You should get the app," says the boy of the pair, sagely. "It'll teach you a lot".
It strikes me, as we walk out of the ground that evening, how powerful a thing intent can be. Maybe the Hundred is just T20 cricket in a fancy new wrapper. Maybe it's an unnecessary addition to an already crowded schedule. Still, those kids are here because someone decided to create this for them.
Luke leaves, promising to love the Southern Swerve till he dies, and I know he's being ironic, but his smile is still pretty genuine. "That," he says unexpectedly, "was exactly what I wanted to do with my Saturday."
Emma John is the author of Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket
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