Seasoned cricket fans and those new to the sport gathered on the London Oval Pitch on Wednesday for the historic opening match of the first Hundred Tournament.
Enthusiastic children and young adults were numerous among a modest crowd of 7,395 – the Oval can hold up to 28,000 – who came to watch the women’s match between hosts the Oval Invincibles and the Manchester Originals.
The governing body of English cricket designed the tournament with the aim of attracting new, younger fans and increasing income, as cricket was in decline with a shrinking and aging audience.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have set ticket prices for children between the ages of six and 15 at 5 (7.6 euros) for all matches, and infants entered for free.
However, the Hundred have aroused the ire of more mainstream supporters who see a fourth format as unnecessary and a threat to the 18 first-class counties playing in the existing domestic competitions of the English game.
– “A better atmosphere” –
But the simplified format appealed to the two young daughters of police officer Rob Wisden, who believes the Hundred will make cricket more “accessible”.
“If you don’t know anything about cricket, six more balls, 20 overs, run rates – it’s complicated. The Hundred format makes it easier,” Wisden, 38, told AFP.
“The marketing has been great, the kits are interesting, the taglines are good,” added Wisden, who shares his last name with the title of cricket’s most famous almanack.
“It helps to be based in the city, so it’s easy to support the home team. It was handled very well.”
Cricket is also a family affair for South Africa-born Director of Operations Nick van Arkel, 40, who has come with his 11-year-old cricket-loving son.
“There’s a better vibe. You get used to the IPL (Indian Premier League) every year. They (England) have their own T20 tournament but there’s not the same excitement – that’s what the Hundred brings, ”he enthused.
Promoting gender equality has been at the heart of the ECB’s marketing strategy, with each franchise having a male and female team and equal prices offered, although men will receive higher salaries.
And the decision to open the tournament with a women’s match was one of the main reasons why budding schoolgirl and cricketer Vedanshree Patel, 14, wanted to watch.
“The new format is an interesting setup to support women’s cricket.
“Women’s cricket wasn’t that big and popular, but now it’s going to get big,” said Patel, who plays for the London-based Middlesex County team.
“There will be a larger audience and it will increase the level of women’s cricket in the future. Starting the Hundred with a women’s game is a really smart decision.”
Nightclubs in England reopened for the first time since March 2020 this week following an easing of coronavirus restrictions, and a party atmosphere was unleashed thanks to a DJ, cheerleaders and a singer performing on a stage at the edge of the field.
Spectacular fireworks greeted players on the pitch, as roaring flames marked the boundaries and wickets to entertain the crowds between deliveries on a balmy south London afternoon.
The cheers and screams of joy from the young spectators amid booming pop music contrasted with the louder, alcohol-fueled atmosphere produced by older, more masculine crowds at Test Cricket.
“Women are fed up with waiting for men to disappear all day in cricket. They envision a situation where you can enjoy a game but not all day,” said administrator Amanda Townley, 63.
“It’s great that women are ahead of men, it should be very interesting – it will have a big impact.”