Welcome to English cricket’s anxiety dream. The Hundred is here, the tournament upon which hangs the game’s reputation, its financial future – some say its very existence. Even those who’ve had the screaming abdabs about this endeavour from the start have found themselves sucked into its dramatic eddy, even to the point of buying tickets.

Given it is a tournament that has been talked (or, more accurately, complained) about for two years, it is remarkable that we still don’t know quite what to expect. The Covid-inspired withdrawal of various overseas signings – including the Australian stars Aaron Finch, Alyssa Healy, Glenn Maxwell and Meg Lanning – has rendered the draft night pizzazz of 2019 (remember 2019?) somewhat irrelevant.

New squads were formed via a multi-stage process so complex it took place behind closed doors to safeguard people’s sanity. The explanation on The Hundred’s website actually congratulates you if you make it to the end. Not the best look for a tournament that was literally invented to make the game easier to understand.

And so, for the curious-but-still-a-little-ambivalent-about-the-whole-thing, we offer answers to the following FAQs …

How long am I going to be hearing about this tournament, then? It starts on Wednesday and culminates with a Lord’s final on 21 August, so five weeks. Not six, because, as you’ll see shortly, cricket does things in nice round numbers now. Apart from the number of teams, which is eight. Sides all play each other, with four home games and four away, including an extra match against their nearest regional rival. The team with the most wins will qualify for the final, while the second- and third-placed finishers play each other for the other finalist’s spot. So far, so simples.

I understand there are going to be 100 balls in each innings? Well done! You’ve successfully grasped the most important difference between the Hundred and another format we like to call Twenty20. What the organisers would really like you to do, if you’ll just try, is forget the concept of overs. When the first team bat the scoreboard will show the number of runs scored against the number of balls bowled, and as the second team chase it will count down the number of runs required from the remaining deliveries.

There will be 10 balls bowled from each end (because millennials do decimal only), and an umpire will hold up a white card after the first five, at which point the captain can either change the bowler or let him/her bowl the full 10. Expect to see fast bowlers display Jimmy Anderson levels of grump at that prospect.

So have they ditched any of cricket’s really complicated rules? Like, I don’t know, the lbw law? Nope. You’ll still need to explain that to your five-year-old/granny/friend-from-work-with-nothing-better-to-do-tonight. Same goes for the powerplay (only two fielders allowed outside the circle for the first 25 balls) and the Duckworth‑Lewis-Stern method, whose algorithm to decide rain‑affected games will remain as gloriously impenetrable as ever.

Are wickets still wickets? Yes. The campaign to call them “outs” has foundered. But you will hear batsmen called “batters”, which is arguably something we could adopt in all forms of cricket, and a “smart-replay system” will call no-balls automatically, which even traditionalists have been crying out for.

Sigh. OK then. Carry on. Well, cricket is going to get its first time out.

Actually I think you’ll find the Indian player Hemulal Yadav was given out that way in 1997’s first‑class match between Orissa and Tripura … A time out, not a timed out. At any point after the first 25 balls the fielding captain can call a two‑and-a-half‑minute pause to the action, during which the coach is allowed to run on to the field and consult. But also batters have only 60 seconds to get to the crease, so maybe there’s a chance of some timed outs too. The England and Wales Cricket Board has made a pact with the broadcasters, quite possibly in their own blood, that no game will overrun its allotted two‑and-a-half‑hour slot.

Jason Roy and Sam Curran will be looking for a fast start with Oval Invincibles.
Jason Roy and Sam Curran will be looking for a fast start with Oval Invincibles. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for ECB

Sounds like someone is going to forfeit their mortal soul. Haven’t they seen Eoin Morgan’s over-rate? There are 50 seconds allotted for changes of ends (simpler, see? Because who measures any unit of time in 60s?). If any side fails to meet the over-rate, it’ll lose one fielder outside the circle.

To a sniper? Obviously not. This is family entertainment.

Anything else that’s going to freak me out? Depends how easily freaked you are. When a batter’s out caught, the other batter has to return to the non-striker’s end even if the players have crossed, which seems fairly uncontroversial. Some stattos don’t like the fact that the Hundred’s statistics will be bundled into the already existing T20 ones, because it’s like keeping your knickers and socks in the same drawer.

But what about the orange balls they’re going to use? The rolling substitutes? Some young kid DJ-ing in the Lord’s pavilion? Fever dreams. Apart from the last one.

And what will happen if Covid gets into one of the teams? No one knows, not even Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive. And this is where we get to the crux. As noted earlier, some of the teams already look nothing like their starting lineups: Welsh Fire have changed half of their men’s team, Southern Brave half their women’s, and Manchester Originals have more new players across their two squads than they began with. While the ECB’s “Safe Living” protocols are supposed to keep the players from exposing their teammates to risk, no one can predict how many will get pinged over the course of the next five weeks.

The uncertainty over who will make it on to the field for any given game means it’s all but impossible to predict a winner from the field. As in the early days of the Indian Premier League, it’ll come down to whichever team adapts quickest to the new format. But Southern Brave are the current pre-tournament favourites in both competitions, thanks to a men’s bowling attack of Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills, Craig Overton and George Garton, and a women’s batting lineup that includes Smriti Mandhana, Stafanie Taylor and Paige Scholfield.

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