On a soupy midsummer evening in south London the Hundred was finally born, a troubled three-year gestation period making way for a positive explosion of sound and light as Oval Invincibles felled Manchester Originals in an electric start to proceedings.
English cricket looked to make a statement by launching its controversial new offering with a women’s game. To the delight of over 7,000 spectators in the Oval who lapped up the entertainment – and doubtless the relief of the under-fire organisers – the international stars on show very much met the brief.
Over the course of two hours and 35 minutes – slightly over the allotted time – a memorable match bubbled up. At the end, after Invincibles captain Dane van Niekerk slashed a four off her opposite number, Kate Cross, to complete a chase of 136 with two balls to spare and finish unbeaten on 56 from 42, a standing ovation broke out.
It was tough on Cross, the England seamer having claimed three for 28 from 18 balls and earlier carved out her own little slice of history when becoming the first cricketer to hit a six in the Hundred, slapping the 95th ball of the match over long-on. The smile upon doing so, and the noise it generated, was sizeable.
The Originals posted 135 for six, Lizelle Lee hitting six fours in a 39-ball 42. But the innings got an injection of energy – and no shortage of style – when India’s Harmanpreet Kaur finessed the same amount in a 16-ball 29. South Africa international Marizanne Kapp and England’s Tash Farrant shared five wickets and 20 dots, but it looked a challenging target.
The chase got off to a troubling start for the home side, Cross striking three times to reduce the hosts to 36 for four after 32 balls. But in came Kapp to join Van Niekerk , the married couple putting on 73 in 50 to break the back of the target. Kapp fell for 38 before the end, victim of a quicksilver stumping by Eleanor Threlkeld. But through an eight-ball 16 from Mady Villiers and the class of Van Niekerk, the Invincibles ensured their amusingly optimistic name – and the tournament as a whole – avoided a false start.
This was a moment of relief for the army of black-shirted gophers from the England and Wales Cricket Board dotted around the venue, so too the sight of a crowd predominantly made up of young adults and families. Detractors will point to the swathes of free tickets handed out for this opener and say the T20 Blast was drawing these fans already, but it still represented a significant box ticked.
After Ebony Rainford-Brent had fittingly rung the bell before the start of play, they had whooped and hollered the team out of the new LED tunnel and on to the field, as an arsenal of fireworks was unloaded, green smoke filled the air and DJ Abbie McCarthy pumped out tunes from the sound stage. Even the pigeons were bobbing along.
Cricket’s in-ground entertainment has grown year-on-year ever since Kerry Packer turned the sport technicolour in the late 1970s with the creation of World Series Cricket. But this did feel like an update to its software; as if the old ground had been put through an Instagram filter, ready to be shared again and again.
The start was a nervy one, Kapp charging in from the Pavilion End and, like James Kirtley of Sussex during the opening match of the Twenty20 Cup back in 2003 – the previous reboot for English cricket – the right-armer produced a wide first up. Even established internationals such as Kapp have the capacity to feel the heat of the spotlight.
But despite some similarly fraught early fielding, Kapp struck with her seventh legal delivery – Emma Lamb caught behind following an impassioned review from Van Niekerk – and the match settled into a rhythm. As expected, this was fundamentally still white-ball cricket as we know it; the same diet of coloured clothes, twinkling zing bails and smoked boundaries, just ever so slightly remixed like the music.
Was all this easier to understand for those present? Clearly to the pre-converted it will take time to rethink established norms, such as the new 10-ball block that can be sent down by one bowler or two before the change of ends. A piece of white card held up by the umpire to denote the midway point is a subdued and easily missed event.
The new-look scoreboard is certainly simplified. As billed, the runs go up as the balls increase during the first innings, before this switches to a countdown in the second. All too often both big screens made way for crowd shots, however, and an early suggestion would be that at least one displays the score at all times, and certainly during the run chase.
This is one small grumble and, overall, opening night was never going to be about changing perceptions en masse. Many of the concerns about the Hundred don’t stem from the cricket either, rather the impact on the English game now it has been unhooked from its county moorings. The upshot won’t be known for a good while yet.
But in a blitz of fireworks, 11 wickets, 32 fours and six sixes, the Hundred has finally arrived and like the first ever Cricket World Cup back in 1973, the women have led the way. Their male counterparts, who meet at the Oval on Thursday, already have a bit to live up to.