There’s something missing from the England and Wales Cricket Board’s financial statements, a hole in between all the intangible assets and net liabilities, where the figures revealing the enormous sums they’ve spent on tea and biscuits ought to be. Cricket press boxes, like so many British institutions, run on tea and biscuits. Demand rises in proportion to stress, and reaches a peak an hour or two before deadline, right about the time everyone’s supposed to start writing. Last year, when Ben Stokes played like Botham, Steve Smith batted like Bradman, and Jofra Archer bowled like Tyson, the biscuit outlay must have run a close second to the marketing spend on The Hundred.
There were biscuits by the barrel load, Bourbons when Stokes took that catch on the boundary at the Oval, Digestives as Pakistan narrowly defended 348 at Trent Bridge, Shortbread when Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow thrashed Australia all around Edgbaston, Ginger Nuts when Trent Boult trod on the boundary rope, Oatmeal Cookies when Martin Guptill’s throw ricocheted away for six, Garibaldis as Jofra Archer steeled himself midway through the super over, and Viennese Whirls when Jos Buttler made that last run-out, Custard Creams when Tim Murtagh bowled England out for 85, Jammie Dodgers during Archer’s duel with Steve Smith at Lord’s.
By the time the Headingley Test came around, the Guardian’s correspondent Vic Marks had taken to sneaking in back-up packets in his rucksack. ‘Tear here in case of emergency’. Amid all the confusion of the final minutes of that Test match, one really clear and lasting memory is the look on Vic’s face right after Stokes hit that last match-winning four through the covers. He won’t thank me for bringing it up, but Vic’s been in cricket a long time, 15 years as a player and 30 as a journalist, and, as many of you will know from listening to him on Test Match Special all these years, he is a wonderfully reassuring presence.
Underneath it all, he’s always seemed to me to be pretty much unflappable, as any Englishman who’s spent a season bowling off-spin in the Sheffield Shield has to be. Whatever mess you’ve you’re in, however tight the looming deadline, you can rely on him to remind you that it’s not so very serious a pickle after all. This, though, was as close as I’ve ever seen him come to dumbstruck. We stared at each other for a giddy minute, I swore, he sighed, then bolted for the back of the press box in search of something to nibble on, since the emergency Hobnobs were, by this point, all long gone.
Looking back on it all now it feels like we ought to savour these crumbs. Because England fans have learned by habit that the glass is half-full, and it’s hard not worry that what we got in 2019 might not be as good as we get for a while. It was the best, certainly, since 2005. Which is ominous, because, traditionally, English cricket has not been all that good at coping with its hangovers. That 2005 team started to wobble that same winter, when they lost their captain, Michael Vaughan, their spinner, Ashley Giles, one of their four star fast bowlers, Simon Jones, to the first in a series of injuries and their vice-captain, Marcus Trescothick to mental illness.
By the time they limped into the World Cup 18 months later, the far side of an Ashes whitewash, the team was in bits. Not that many of us were watching it happen. Because it was at that same time, of course, the ECB had followed through on the deal they’d signed to take cricket off terrestrial TV and stick it behind Sky’s paywall. Which loops us neatly back to the present, and their latest attempts to repair the long-term damage to the foundations of the game that decision caused. We’re midway through the ECB’s two-year plan to revitalise the game. The players, and coaches, have made good by winning the World Cup, now (gulp) it’s over to the administrators.
Because here comes The Hundred. At 6.30pm on Friday 17 July, the lurid technicolour dawn breaks at the Oval, where the Invincibles (“Vibrant, expressive, and free to play their own way, this team leaves a lasting impression long after the last ball” )play the Welsh Fire (“Burning bright with intense passion and relentless energy, their hunger will prove the haters wrong”). Those team descriptions, taken from the competition website, really bring to mind Harrison Ford’s deathless observation about George Lucas’ Star Wars script: “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it, next time try moving your lips when you write”.
The Hundred feels, at this point, like a good fit for Brexit Britain, because while we may well have spent the last two years arguing about the rights and wrongs, it’s happening anyway, and everything else, Test cricket and the county championship, is going to be rearranged around it. The obvious difference is that The Hundred may be struggling to muster as much as 52% support. There are, apparently, reasons to be enthusiastic about it, but they are outweighed by the hard-learned scepticism most England fans feel towards the ECB, and an inescapable sense that the game we love is being unduly buggered about by people we’ve learned from long, painful experience not to trust.
Which is why, presumably, the ECB have signed their sponsorship deal with KP Snacks. Someone pass the Chocolate Dips.
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