July 2001, exactly 20 years ago. Working at my desk, with a transistor radio tuned to Test Match Special, I received a surprising phone call. The England and Wales Cricket Board were embarking on a major strategic research project. Would I be interested in pitching?
English cricket had arrived at one of its periodic nadirs. The Ashes had passed beyond all human understanding – in other words, to Australia, seemingly permanently. The national team had plunged to last on the world test rankings, with the English captain booed by his own crowd at Lord's.
The recently established Premier League had proved a runaway success with kids bending it like Beckham when they should have been swinging it like, well, who? There was a distinct dearth of English cricket heroes. And the playing fields had been sold off to Tesco and Sainsbury's anyway.
English cricket is a funny beast. On the one hand, reactionary, conservative, arch traditionalists. But, on the other, fully prepared to experiment when their backs are against the wall. The summer of 2001 was just such a time.
Stuart Robertson, marketing manager at the ECB, was point on the project. He proved the best kind of client – across the detail, trusted by his marketing colleagues, generous, pleasant and civilised. No doubt my verdict on him was considerably aided by his awarding me and my associate, Al Crawford, the qualitative element of the project.
What was the brief?
The working theory at the ECB was that cricket now looked like the uncool kid in the playground in the land of video games, theme parks and multi-channel TV. The game needed to squeeze into a pair of disco trousers.
So the project was not in the first instance specifically focused on a new shorter form of the game. It was an attempt to find out why people might have fallen out of love with cricket and what might be done to entice them back. There was also a significant quantitative element to the research.
So, throughout the late summer and early autumn I was to be found schlepping up and down the country with my trusted camcorder, interviewing spectators on the boundary edge and convening focus groups of lapsed spectators. I well remember travelling up to Scarborough on September 11, only to get off the train to discover the whole world had changed.
There's that old question: what if you threw a party and no one came? At Derbyshire I turned up for the 11am start of play against Warwickshire at 10.30. Unfortunately I was the only one. I had to make do with interviewing the man on the gate and the bloke behind the bar. By 11.30 the gate had risen to six.
What did we find out?
That cricket did not fit around the 21st century family. The dad of 2001 was expected to do far more on a Sunday than his father had done before him. Cricket required an all-day commitment to sit and watch – things which kids were becoming increasingly unused to. And any dad who had given it a go was generally unimpressed by the other leisure options available for children around the grounds.
No one, beyond the diehards, knew when games were on, what competitions were taking place, or what the format of the games was. One respondent pointed out that there was no actual fixture list on the county website when he went to look. Nobody – anywhere, including members of the ECB – could say with any certainty what matches would be played when.
No one could recall any marketing initiatives or promotions to get them to give cricket a go. No attempt to engage with a younger audience. One young Muslim pointed out there was nothing he could eat from the solitary burger van.
It seemed like the people behind cricket didn't care much about it. So if it didn't matter to them whether people turned up, why should the casual spectator bother? Why invest time – and you did need to invest a lot of time even to watch a one-day match – when time was in such short supply?
Cricket still existed but it had lost its meaning. An Ashes contest still meant something, although English supporters had had a decade of failure on that front, but county cricket had disappeared off most people's radar. During the '70s and '80s people could still recall early September finals at Lord's, the climax of the county season. There were memories of a Gillette Cup semi-final between Lancashire and Gloucestershire played out in semi-darkness – on TV – with a nation riveted. But those days seemed long ago.
What we did not find was that people thought cricket was boring.
People still liked the essence of the game. Many still played cricket after work midweek, even if they'd stopped going to watch. The quantitative research was critical here. It showed there was still a big untapped market of people who had turned away from cricket but were not rejecters.
Anything we tried that subverted the essence of cricket was rejected. To give one example, an idea to "jazz the game up" was a golden batsman. This was one batsman nominated from each side who could bat twice. The concept was met with ridicule. People did not want the game itself, with its ancient traditions and laws, mucked around with.
Similarly, people were distinctly lukewarm about the idea of city teams to replicate the partisanship enjoyed by football supporters. "What difference would it make? It'd be the same team in the same stadium." Today's leading football teams have grown organically from teams of factory workers or church groups. County cricket teams have not. Slapping a city branding on a twenty-first century cricket team seemed inauthentic to respondents.
So the research showed the need to shift focus away from "jazzing the game up" and towards enhancing accessibility, on every front.
There was one idea that therefore gained in prominence as the project progressed. In South Africa there had already been experiments with short-form cricket and there was an immediate need to replace the Benson & Hedges Cup, which was coming to an end in 2002. Having digested the research, Stuart Robertson's elegant solution was a 20-over cricket tournament (still to be branded Twenty20 as yet).
This was a circuit breaker for the casually disaffected cricket supporter. Most importantly, it fitted within their life. Friendship groups, families, groups of youngsters could go along to a cricket match at a predictable time – early evening after school or work in June when the days were long. This element was critical. It could be embedded in people's calendars, part of a summer ritual like the Boxing Day Test is for Melburnians.
And once people started coming back, they could start engaging with a team and its players. Over time cricket could start to become meaningful once more.
The rest of the debrief to the First Class Forum was met with indifference. One recommendation was that more could be done to reach out to ethnic communities. "We tried that once. The Indian families came along in their old cars, five in the back and the mother-in-law in the boot." Hearty chuckles round the room. Hopefully the past is a different country.
We all know what happened next. The vote for a short-format competition, overseen ironically by ex-Tesco supremo, Lord MacLaurin, was close, 11-7, but Stuart Robertson had already got it past the county marketing directors who were on board. It was meant to be a tactical fix, but proved such a massive hit at launch that everyone took notice. The rest is history.
The report will be gathering dust somewhere in a Lord's archive. But if someone had bothered to dig it out, would The Hundred look like an answer to any known problem? Shorter is generally better, that's true (but there must be some limit). Bouncy castles and fireworks are fine and suggest you've invested behind the experience which people like (although Twenty20 already does that).
But, for me, The Hundred flies against many of our findings. It tampers with the essence of the game. It introduces city franchises. It eats away at meaning.
Time will tell. I look back on my experience with fondness and pride. It's not often you have a hand on the tiller as history is made. But also no little ambivalence. I don't quite think: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." But as a traditionalist, I do worry about the law of unintended consequences.