After three years of positioning as cricket’s very own culture war, even calling the opening night of The Hundred a success will do little to suck the heat out of an increasingly fevered debate.
By the time Oval Invincibles captain Dane van Niekerk edged the winning runs off her Manchester Originals counterpart Kate Cross with just two balls remaining it was a triumph not just for her franchise, but the nascent competition itself.
It was fun, it was close and it all came down to authentic sporting excellence over 22 yards. As a finale, it was everything the organisers needed it to be. But was it a success because of the many controversial choices that came along the way or in spite of them? Did cricket just find a powerful new platform for growth or did its core values shine through despite a confected layer of ‘glamour’? It will take longer to settle that debate.
For the women’s game it seems a win-win situation, with the spotlight turned its way in unprecedented fashion on the global circuit. Much was made of pop star Becky Hill’s performance at the innings break, with live music a major pillar of the organisers’ crossover plans, but the real measure of success will come when some of the young fans who streamed out of The Oval on Wednesday night go from wannabe singers to wannabe spinners.
Despite the long gestation period and the 12-month delay, neither of the partnering broadcasters were in perfectly polished form when the big kick-off came.
On Sky Sports, former England batsman Rob Key made an early, forbidden reference to overs, a retired term in a format where every ball is its own event. Over on the BBC, England Women’s captain Heather Knight admitted she had found her trial matches ‘clunky’ – hardly the kind of full-throated endorsement most were offering up.
But both Key and Knight rode their segments with a smile and a joke and things soon found their feet. For those viewing on terrestrial, it was an appearance from Test great James Anderson and his fellow ‘Tailenders’ (Radio 1’s Greg James and former Maccabee Felix White) that struck a chord.
The sceptics were acknowledged, with an arch aside and an appearance of the Brenda from Bristol meme – her weariness of repeated elections used as Twitter-friendly shorthand for those who cannot see room for a fourth format in an already crowded calendar. In the course of a few minutes Anderson, a beloved figure of the old school establishment, was chivvied along from curmudgeon to cheerleader. How many he carried with him on that journey, we cannot know.
For Sky, it was more about the cricket: with the forensic Nasser Hussain leading the assessment of the rival squads. For anyone worried about the core skills being lost amid buzzwords and influencers, Hussain’s meticulous approach was a welcome bulwark.
The players also showed a few first-night nerves, with South Africa’s Marizanne Kapp sending down a leg-side wide to get the party started on a bum note and wicketkeeper Sarah Bryce fumbling behind the stumps. It then took Lizelle Lee four legal deliveries to score the first runs off the bat – and that from a misfield in the deep. The fireworks had already blasted out from the top of the stands but took a while to be replicated in the middle. Even umpire Tim Robinson took a while to wake up, missing the first edge of the day only to be bailed out by DRS.
But then the basic equation began to reveal itself: top players, going head to head, with a noisy, youthful crowd approaching 8,000 cheering them along. If any cricket competition is ever to succeed, it will need smart bowlers and strong batters to carry it.
In the field there was a bit of spice from seamer Shabnim Ismail and street smarts from England’s Tash Farrant, who hustled her way to three wickets. With the bat it was over to Lee, who hit six boundaries, and the effortlessly elegant Harmanpreet Kaur.
Hill dominated a chunk of the innings break as she reeled out her hits in a shimmery orange dress that was perhaps a shade too close to the Birmingham Phoenix colours for the midlander to plead complete sporting neutrality.
But while the music tie-ins form a major plank of the ECB’s crossover plans, live concerts can always be found in other arenas. There is no shortage of kids who want to be the next Becky Hill, but the mission is to turn some of them into an aspiring Kate Cross.
And so it was back to the real business, with Cross taking two wickets in two balls, Sophie Ecclestone showing off her spinning skill and Van Niekerk staring both down alongside Mady Villiers to win it for the hosts.
Van Niekerk’s celebrations erupted against a backdrop of strobing effects on the screen, an e-number fuelled reminder to enjoy what was already perfectly enjoyable.