Fire and Loathing: the Hundred and its pyrotechnics will strangle cricket | Barney Ronay
At 6.57pm on Wednesday 3 August, as the final notes of Freed From Desire by Gala (Full vocal club mix) lingered in the eaves of the Rose Bowl, Hampshire, as the lights of the smoke-shrouded player tunnel gleamed like nuggets of high carbon Llanelli anthracite – like fire, Welsh fire – Joe Clarke, top bracket signing, felt a droplet of sweat trickle down the grille of his tomato red helmet.
Slowly he turned to Tom Banton, first draft pick, with whom he would in the next few moments be yoked together on the face of the Hundred Matchday One, out there like mountaineers scaling that sheer sporting peak.
“Bro. Are you out later? It’s foam night at Zeus.” The air seemed to shimmer between them, potent with the tang of raw, uncut sporting entertainment product, as umpire Arthur Cakebread brushed past, sighing, as he strapped the sleek black plastic ball shield to his forearm. Banton looked up from his phone. “You know, if you close your eyes for long enough, I mean for a really, really long time, you can smell colours. It’s, like, whoah.”
Fast forward 17 minutes, through a haze of light, sounds, light, sounds, sounds and sounds, and Banton and Clarke will be back sitting on the same UPVC-mix sport-bench. Clarke was out without scoring. Banton hit one huge six then forgot what he was doing. Welsh would go on to lose by nine wickets, the first in a sequence of eight defeats in eight games. And so a grand scale sporting collapse is set in train.
In the course of this 4,000-word deep dive and 12-part companion podcast the Guardian will provide forensic, unseen insight into the unravelling of the men’s Welsh Fire Hundred franchise season. Fire and Loathing: Two Years of Hurt is an attempt to understand the collapse of a sporting dynasty, the effects on the culture of Fire, the Fire fans, the Fire way of life.
How to untangle those deep threads? Was it the random blokes of the Welsh Fire men’s Hundred team, assembled via bespoke dissociative data algorithms and because some of them were famous? Was the DJ selection process robust? Was the material of the tomato red outfits not stretchy enough, or perhaps too stretchy? Was Gary Kirsten hanging around vaguely with an iPad to blame, or just, like, probably not? Because frankly if it’s not any of those things, it doesn’t really leave much to work with.
What is certain is that the Fire did lose eight games and did spend £250,000 on two star openers who faced 84 balls combined the whole tournament and averaged 12. And while I would love to read a genuine deep dive into the details, I also make no apology for mocking Welsh Fire Men’s Hundred team, if only because it doesn’t really exist.
Welsh Fire is still basically just a name, some clothing, some words on the internet. Losing eight from eight is Welsh Fire Men’s Hundred team’s most convincing claim to any kind of actual life. Could this be the most grippingly pointless sporting entity ever created in this country? Here we have a losing machine in a space where losing doesn’t matter, but where it must be broadcast to the nation eight times in 29 days by a cult-like TV commentary crew willing to pretend, energetically, that Welsh Fire losing has any objective meaning.
And yes the Hundred has been pretty good over the last month, on its own terms. The women’s and men’s finals will be played on Saturday at Lord’s. The weather looks decent, fingers crossed. The last week has finally brought some close games, although less so in the women’s draw. On Wednesday the Manchester Originals reached “The Eliminator” with a fine last-ball win, which was also fun because it involved Paul Walter and Wayne Madsen thrashing away and the whole thing looking like a good-standard 2017 Blast game with added edgy font and commentators on drugs, which might be a good way to brand this thing for the jaded legacy pound.
And so as the competition ends it is standard practice even for the sceptic to see the positives, to say that this is all part of “a conversation”. But I’m not going to do that here, because I’ve noticed that the more you mention the good things the Hundred can do, the more they seem not just long overdue and self evidently necessary, but problems the England and Wales Cricket Board caused in the first place, and which it is now using to “wash” its money-making venture.
The Hundred is about opening up the sport, we hear, from the people who closed cricket off in the first place, and who have now realised the money is elsewhere. The same body who danced around 20 years of warnings over institutional racism now tells us the Hundred is all about diversity, that this is the most important thing. The same ECB that showed moderate interest in prioritising women’s cricket now waves the (excellent) women’s Hundred around as though this has been the whole point all along, like some caddish chief officer on the Titanic piously loading women and children into the lifeboats then leaping in after them.
A women’s Blast would also have been excellent. Women’s cricket is good. It needed more and still needs more. The Hundred was not invented to address this, but will scoop it up as more growth, more wallpapering, a way of suggesting, with Putinesque double-speak, that if you’re against the Hundred you must also be against women’s cricket, happy children and crisps.
Mainly, though, the Hundred is the least good version of a complex activity. There are only two real elements of meaning in team sport: proper rivalries or a genuinely high standard. For all the gushing of TV’s Eoin Morgan and his fellow double-glazing salespeople, the Hundred has neither of these things.
It is instead interchangeable competent people in coloured shirts doing stuff. The alleged razor-sharp high-pressure skills of short-form cricket are often overstated by journalists, broadcasters and coaches with skin in the game. In reality there is little room for depth or other gears. For bowlers five balls is not enough, 10 balls too many. Batting is reduced to hitting, but on pitches that have seemed tired.Is it best just to be honest? This is a property being groomed for sale to private owners, an ECB attempt to retain a commercial foothold at a time when cricket is rapidly becoming a freelance franchise gig. So we get the genuinely weird spectacle of cricket that is by design a kind of saleable noise, Muzak, generic light entertainment; not as a pathway to anything else, but as a lure for TV advertisers and private capital.
Let us also be clear that this new form must and will quietly strangle its host, that bed-blocking old parent sport. That there is a choice here, that commerce and income are not the only elements of value. Against all this it is impossible not to love the Welsh Fire men’s franchise just a little, to respect its complete inability to function as a competitive entity, if only as a note of gallows humour, a clutch of the dying hand, and as something that does still genuinely feel like sport.