Emma Lamb probably spoke for all of us. She, along with fellow batter Lizelle Lee, had walked out to open for Manchester Originals, and had clearly not expected the Olympics-worthy eruption of fireworks around the Oval. The camera caught her staring open-mouthed at the pink, green and white explosions, and stayed on her as her lips formed the syllables: “What … the … sh …?” The commentators did not offer a translation: this was family entertainment, after all.
What the sh… indeed: it was what many cricket fans had been silently wondering since the Hundred was announced, and at least some of those tuning in to the BBC and Sky’s simultaneous coverage of the first game will have been hoping to indulge in a little light hate-watching. We had been told this was cricket, but not as we knew it. As it turned out, it really wasn’t that bad. During the match, commentators repeatedly told us that matches in the Hundred would be decided, above all, by tactics. For the broadcasters, strategy was just as important. How, for instance, would they approach the unavoidable fact that the tournament for which they were now official cheerleaders was about as popular as poor Britney Spears’s conservators?
For the BBC, the answer was: go meta. As the hosts of Tailenders, the “loosely cricket-based podcast,” it fell to Greg James, Felix White and Jimmy Anderson to introduce this “loosely cricket-based game”. They did it with tongues in cheek, eyebrows arched and, in Anderson’s case, the slightly disbelieving frown that has become his onfield trademark (“You know I don’t like change,” he grumbled, at the mention of the timeout).
True to style, there were silly puns, in-jokes and catchphrases – “it’s like cricket, but shorter!” they repeated, in unison. And given that Tailenders has built a devoted audience that includes cricket agnostics and converts, it was a sound place to start.
As host of Radio 1’s breakfast show James is, you imagine, a key player for the BBC, lending his kudos to attract the millennials for whom the Hundred was invented. The BBC has gone big on this music/cricket crossover, selecting DJs and musicians that will play live at each game, releasing special playlists on their Sounds app. When Isa Guha said “let’s go down to Vic”, it was not, as TMS listeners may have hoped, Mr Marks to whom she was throwing, but Vick Hope, the R1 DJ who was doing pitchside interviews with young fans and erstwhile members of The Saturdays. Even absent from the ground, James managed a recurring minor subplot, as Hope reported on his travails in a campervan at Chester Zoo, where he was locked in one of his escape room stunts. For the cricket action itself, we were given into the safe hands of “The Usuals”.
This was not the brand name for a previously unannounced Middlesbrough-based team, but the collective term for Phil Tufnell and Michael Vaughan, who were to be our chief commentary pairing throughout the evening. It was an early sign that the Beeb weren’t going to try anything too wacky – that they wanted everyone to feel comfortable and included, even actual cricket lovers.
With all due affection and respect to the gentlemen in question, there is nothing millennial about a tan linen jacket over a t-shirt, even if you style it up with a jazzy pocket square. Their double act had the aroma of Cannon and Ball, only reinforced by Tuffers’s dad-dancing to the stadium beats, or Vaughan’s earnest announcement that “Becky Hill’s got it rocking here in the Oval!” (Cue Tuffers: “It’s nice to hear a bit of live music, Mike”).
You certainly got a sense of the excitement and novelty of the occasion from everyone in front of the camera, not least in nervous moments that bled from the field – where there were butterfingers on the boundary and one terrible early umpiring decision – to the edit suite, where someone forgot to remove the chopped-up audio from the very first montage and gave us a slightly Lynchian screen moment. The live atmosphere, we were told, was buzzing, and that was significant: empty seats look worse than they are in a big stadium like the Oval, and the noise on social media confirmed the crowd was large and lively.
Over on Sky there were stylishly assured VT packages that trailed the big hitters who’ll be headlining their coverage – Flintoff, Pietersen, Broad – but even more so more so than the BBC, their coverage of this first match was surprisingly conventional. While Ebony Rainford-Brent is the face of their ultra-cool campaign, the only real nod to youth we got was Rob Key wearing his going-out-out shirt, and talking us through Maddie Villiers’s bowling action next to a marginally terrifying avatar. With the ever-authoritative Mel Jones and Nasser Hussain calling the tight finish home, the Hundred was already developing a patina of respectability. There is nothing here for the sceptics to fear.