The tension rose as the man in green holding the ball ran towards the man in black holding the long wooden stick. With a serious look on his face, the man in green jumped in the air and hurled the ball at the man with the stick, standing in front of three thinner sticks, and another man in green wearing funny big gloves. The man with the stick tried to hit the ball, but it was a well-directed yorker on fifth stump that he could only dig out to long-on, and …
Oh no. I did it again. This is the problem, you see, with trying to explain cricket to the uninitiated: as much as you try to simplify it, to purge it of its quirks and verbiage, somehow cricket always finds a way of creeping back in. And on reflection, there were lots of moments like this on night two of The Hundred, as the men took to the stage so gleefully christened by the women on Wednesday night.
Take the moment near the end of the Oval Invincibles’ innings when Saqib Mahmood glanced down to fine leg and refused a single off the last ball before a change of ends. “Mummy, why didn’t the man run?” Or when Sunil Narine, distracted by Colin Munro’s constant switch-hitting, deliberately fired the ball two yards down the leg side. “Daddy, why did the man bowl it there?” Or the time Carlos Brathwaite muscled the ball down to the midwicket boundary. “Mummy, why are the Invincibles bowling into the pitch with mid-wicket in the circle when everyone knows Brathwaite is bottom-hand dominant and loves to sit deep in his crease?” Kids these days. So many questions.
You know what? For all the flippancy and well-deserved snark, it was actually good fun. We saw the Curran brothers bowling beautifully, a Sam Billings onslaught live on prime-time BBC television and in front of a vividly vocal crowd of 18,000 the Invincibles deservedly triumphed over Manchester Originals by nine runs. On the evidence of these two nights, even the most cynical among us would surely have to conclude that, for all The Hundred’s ills, it is certainly not boring.
And really, the intriguing part of all this was not how fresh and new it all felt, but how familiar. Cricket with fireworks and pop music, cricket with funny new gimmicks, cricket with outstanding boundary fielding and breathtaking reverse-hitting, cricket with brand new teams assembled on a whim, cricket played on a gorgeous green pasture under a golden evening sun: for anyone with even the merest grounding in the sport (ie not the target market), none of this would have been remotely disquieting.
The great lie of The Hundred – a lie deployed not simply to woo a new audience but antagonise the old one – is that it is some daring act of visionary disruption, a clean break with the past. On the contrary, it’s exactly the same sandwich with exactly the same filling: only packaged in fancy coloured plastic, given a new name and marketed at the gluten-intolerant.
Whether any genuine agnostics have actually been converted is a question that will only be answered in time. Certainly not on the basis of the clientele filing through the turnstiles here: in tone, demographic and choice of beverage it was essentially indistinguishable from a Surrey post-work Twenty20 crowd. They turned up in their Charles Tyrwhitt shirts, queued for their pints and belted out Don’t Take Me Home in loud male voices. And fair play to them, by the way. Cricket, even in this brave new landscape, is not so flush that it can afford to turn its nose up at any audience: let alone a loyal, thirsty audience with disposable income to burn.
Nevertheless, the first leg of the journey has been negotiated without a hitch. Oval’s 145 for 8, bolstered by an early flurry from Jason Roy, a late thrash from Tom Curran and the butchery of Billings in the middle, felt a little light. But apparently the ECB had commissioned some focus group research during the interval that concluded that 145 is actually awesome, perhaps even one of the greatest totals ever, and so it proved. On a used pitch, with a fine and varied attack, Manchester struggled against the new ball and despite the best efforts of Munro and Brathwaite never quite caught up with the rate.
It mattered a great deal who won, until it didn’t. The scoreboard rarely actually bothered showing the score, instead rotating between a selection of garish graphics, candid crowd shots and occasional clips of a serious-looking woman playing Dua Lipa records. The crowd cheered at vaguely appropriate times, applauded the teams off the field, and went home thoroughly sated, perhaps even wanting more. Say, an extra 20 balls for each team. Someone should invent that. It would sell.