Something tells me cricket isn’t just going to change overnight…
Last Thursday night I was at the first men’s game of the Hundred: Oval Invincibles vs Manchester Originals at The Oval. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a large group of fellow match-goers at the train station. Of the eight of them, three were adults and five were kids under ten. They were clearly already cricket fans of some description – two of the kids were wearing training shirts of my cricket club – but I was encouraged to see such a young group going to the game.
My encouragement was depleted by the time I got to the venue, however. As a I walked out of Vauxhall tube station, I found myself in a crowd of the more classic cricket fan. Replica shirts of the international, county and IPL variety were on display (myself? I was wearing an Adelaide Strikers shirt). And although there was some visible diversity – ethnic, gender and age – the crowd was predominantly white and male.
I sat next to a man and his godson, the former a semi-regular at the Oval and the latter at his first cricket game. Once again, I was encouraged that the ECB’s marketing had cut through to that fabled new audience, but the encouragement was short lived as the game progressed as the groups in front and behind of me became increasingly loud as they drank alcohol.
The atmosphere was rather typical for a T20. It has been a few years since I attended a Blast fixture at the Oval. Thursday’s crowd was similar to what I remembered. Perhaps a little younger, a little louder, a little more friendly.
True to the style of T20, it wasn’t long before the crowd broke out into song. ‘Please don’t take me home’ was a clear favourite of the punters, followed by ‘Sweet Caroline’. Songs adorning Gareth Southgate and Harry Maguire were also sung, a Euros hangover, perhaps?
The crowd’s voice contrasted with the DJ’s. There has been a clear directive from the ECB to modernise the choice of music to be played over the PA. Among the DJ’s playlist I noticed Royal Blood’s ‘Typhoons’. Now, I am a big Royal Blood fan, but their post-grunge sound is not best enjoyed whilst seated at a cricket game. The paying public did not take to the DJ’s choice of music (bar a few kids shown dancing on the big screens), and the DJ did not play to the crowd’s preferred songs. The contrast was jarring.
The DJs also get marked down for their placement. The DJ booth occupies the bulk of a stand at The Oval, in which no spectators can sit, reducing the venue’s capacity.
There is also the issue of the half-time act. Essentially, no-one cared. I couldn’t hear the name of the act over the PA when it was announced for the crowd, didn’t recognise the one song they played, and didn’t notice them leave the stage. The crux of the problem is that fans use the interval to talk to their friends, go to the toilet and purchase food and drink. No-one came to see a band they haven’t heard of play a single song.
The PA system was largely inaudible throughout. I had much anticipated the explainer videos that were going to introduce new fans to the rules of the game. I could barely here them over the crowd, and the video wasn’t enough on its own.
I also found the game difficult to follow. This is a criticism I can apply to the TV coverage as well: as an established cricket fan, the scoreboards did not provide me with enough information to follow the game the way I am used to. Of the two big screens, the one I could see best only showed runs scored and balls faced in the first innings or runs required and balls remaining in the run chase. The second screen resembled a more traditional scoreboard, but both kept flashing away to show replays and vox-pop children the stands.
The best was to follow the scoreboard on the dot-matrix board in the 1845 stand. Here, you could reliably find the batsman’s scores as well as the bowler’s figures, Missing, however, was any measure of run rate, either the current rate, the required rate, the batter’s strike rate or the bowler’s economy. These are stats I find extremely helpful when following the game, but they were not provided. Now, I have two maths A-levels, so it was within my grasp to calculate these for myself, but I found it challenging to retain all this information and still watch the actual cricket. God-only-knows how this works if you are less mathematically inclined than me. What I would give to have a worm-chart appear occasionally to show the progress of the game, but these have been dropped. I assume the marketing team (wrongly) find them too complicated.
Overall, the experience was enjoyable, but less so that a T20 Blast fixture. I found the DJ and half-time act was out-of-place, and the cricket harder to follow. My advice is that if you are an existing cricket fan, and are open-minded to The Hundred, the £25 ticket price is more than good value. If you have already decided you hate The Hundred, I do not expect you to listen to me and you should take your folding chair to whatever out-ground the One Day Cup is being played at.
Of course, cricket isn’t just going to change overnight, and neither are it’s fans. There are a few encouraging signs, particularly the viewing figures. But whether it translates to more, and particularly new, bums on seat is a question we won’t be able to answer for some time.
Most important, if you are a new cricket fan, or have been put off by the T20 atmosphere in the past, I would not recommend attending a men’s game. At least, I would recommend attending a women’s game, where the crowds will be smaller, quieter, and following the game will be easier.
I’ll cover my thoughts on the format and its wider impact on the game later in the competition.