At 6.57pm on Wednesday 3 August, as the overall notes of Freed From Desire by way of Gala (Full vocal membership combine) lingered within the eaves of the Rose Bowl, Hampshire, because the lighting of the smoke-shrouded participant tunnel gleamed like nuggets of top carbon Llanelli anthracite – like fireplace, Welsh fireplace – Joe Clarke, most sensible bracket signing, felt a droplet of sweat trickle down the grille of his tomato crimson helmet.
Slowly he became to Tom Banton, first draft select, with whom he would in the following few moments be yoked in combination at the face of the Hundred Matchday One, available in the market like mountaineers scaling that sheer carrying top.
“Bro. Are you out later? It’s foam night at Zeus.” The air perceived to shimmer between them, potent with the tang of uncooked, uncut carrying leisure product, as umpire Arthur Cakebread brushed previous, sighing, as he strapped the graceful black plastic ball protect to his forearm. Banton regarded up from his telephone. “You know, if you close your eyes for long enough, I mean for a really, really long time, you can smell colors, 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 now not going to do this right here, as a result of I’ve spotted that the extra you point out the great things the Hundred can do, the extra they appear now not simply lengthy late and self it appears that evidently essential, however issues the England and Wales Cricket Board led to within the first position, and which it’s now the use of to “wash” its money-making project.
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 realized 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 hundreds 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 colored 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 even be transparent that this new shape will have to and can quietly strangle its host, that bed-blocking previous dad or mum game. That there’s a selection right here, that trade and source of revenue don’t seem to be the one parts of price. Against all this it’s not possible to not love the Welsh Fire males’s franchise just a bit, to appreciate its entire incapability to serve as as a aggressive entity, if simplest as a be aware of gallows humour, a take hold of of the death hand, and as one thing that does nonetheless surely really feel like game.