As I write this, the Hundred is about to get under way. A new format, with a franchise and city-based team structure. Equal billing (though not quite pay) for both men's and women's competitions. New rules and a family-friendly party atmosphere, geared to attract a younger, more diverse audience. And crucially, everything packaged to fit into early evening TV schedules on both subscription and free-to-air channels.
Cricket fans were told, don't forget, that this was not for them – rather misreading, one feels, just how diverse a group cricket fans actually are and how many people that statement was alienating. Not so much biting, as chewing off and spitting out the hand that feeds.
The objective in this article however, is not to debate the rights and wrongs of the Hundred. Many have done that and had their say. Some, particularly those with a direct interest through their broadcast commitments have tried to be even-handed, but are compromised by the obligation to "cheer-lead" on the new tournament's behalf.
If you want to read two of the clearest and best argued articles, unfettered by vested interest, then I can strongly commend George Dobell's Dylanesque expose for cricinfo and our own Ian Forth's Golden Batsmen and City Franchises
The Cricket Supporters' Association, is an organisation set up in 2017 by Dobell and Becky Fairlie-Clarke, with the specific intent of ensuring that cricket fans and followers don't just have a voice, but that it is heard where it needs to be. Central to this aspiration is their annual survey, the results from fifth edition of which have recently been published.
Never has it been more important to ensure the views of cricket fans are heard as we see a county system under financial pressure, the impact of the pandemic and he launch of new and not universally- accepted format of the game with the Hundred.
Over 3,000 cricket fans, across all age ranges, responded to the Major topics covered include The Hundred, the role and importance of the county championship, whether fans' views are listened to – and acted upon – and whether cricket should be more accessible via free-to-air coverage of tournament cricket.
You can watch here as CSA co-founder Fairlie-Clarke discusses with me the results of the survey and highlights where cricket fans stand on the most important issues. Crucially, we discover how the survey results are being presented to the ECB and what is demanded back in response from the game's governing body.
Some highlights to whet your appetite are:
- The number of fans who responded was a 20% increase on the previous survey.
- 43% of respondents were under 44 and 25% under 35. A healthy balance and far from the clichéd heartland of crusty cricket support that is often supposed.
- 63% of fans feel negatively about The Hundred, with just 20% positive.
One key issue expressed, explained Becky, was the unclear link between the new format and pathways and grass-roots growth.
However, the biggest concern was negative impact on the county structure, in all its forms and not just the county championship. Remember, we now enter the height of summer where there will be no championship cricket and the One Day Royal London Cup is reduced to a "development" tournament. That is, if counties can even raise teams for it given decimation of their squads by both Covid and the Hundred. An overwhelming 94% of responders said that not prioritising the county championship will badly impact Test cricket.
To compound the above, only 22% of fans feel considered when the ECB make decisions. The corollary to which is that 81% want to be more involved and work with the ECB if that could be made possible.
But, amidst these real concerns are more promising trends. 43% of cricket fans intend to watch more cricket compared to 2019 and 33% of fans are more engaged with cricket now than in 2019. So winning World Cups and a vibrant existing T20 tournament are doing a fair bit right it seems.
There has been significant growth in new viewing channels amongst survey responders, particularly county YouTube streams. So again, put away that misapprehension that an "average" cricket fan has to turn their hearing aid down to muffle the rustle of each other's newspapers. It's simply not true.
But the ultimate question is: what next? How is the voice of the cricket supporter reaching the ECB and what is the expectation of the governing body?
Becky tackled that one head on. "The results have been presented to the ECB and their response is awaited," she says. "Calling for accountability and transparency is reasonable, so we are expecting the ECB to provide clear answers to the CSA on all issues raised."
That may take some further pushing for, with the ultimate goal of genuine fan representation. But don't expect the likes of Becky and George to rest until those answers are clearly delivered on behalf of true cricket fans everywhere.