Men’s Hundred 2022 – Fire outperformed by the fireworks as new Hundred season starts with a squeak

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The opening night of the Hundred’s second season launched with a fireworks display so extensive that the smoke took nearly five minutes to clear. It felt as though a member of the Ageas Bowl’s events staff must have pushed the wrong button, using up all the pyrotechnics for the evening.

So it proved. Over the course of 169 balls, Southern Brave and Welsh Fire hit only two sixes, one from Noor Ahmad, the 17-year-old Afghanistan wristspinner, and the other by James Vince off Noor’s bowling. Brave, the defending champions, cruised home with 31 balls to spare in pursuit of 108; Fire’s hopes were extinguished before the end of the powerplay.

The shadow of the absent Jonny Bairstow loomed over their innings, after the ECB finally confirmed on the eve of the tournament that Fire’s marquee player would not be taking part in order to manage his workload. They were not short on batting power, with a stacked top order on paper, but any team in the world would feel his absence keenly given his recent form. “It’s huge,” Ben Duckett said. “He came in and won us two games last year.”

Bairstow’s decision to withdraw was the obvious move, the only window in his jammed schedule for him to take a rest, but by making his decision public at the 11th hour – his decision had been communicated internally 48 hours before the announcement – the ECB ensured his absence would be one of the evening’s main talking points.

In fact, both sides were missing key men and neither managed to fill their quota of three overseas players: Brave were without Quinton de Kock and Finn Allen while Fire had to cope without David Miller and Naseem Shah, all on international duty. The opening night showed why the ECB have ensured the Hundred has a clear window of availability from next year: the names that had been used to sell tickets were nowhere to be seen.

“We’re not quite sure what a good score will be,” Vince had said at the toss, and 107 for 7 was not the answer. Fire lost Joe Clarke, Tom Banton and Ollie Pope inside the first 22 balls for 16 runs between them, and despite Duckett’s valiant 40 off 31 and two drops from Vince in the field, they were a long way short of a competitive total.

Vince sparkled in the chase after an early reprieve, dropped by Ryan Higgins at deep backward square leg. He has been seeing the white Kookaburra like a watermelon all summer, leading the run charts in the Blast, and his cuts for four through backward point off Adam Zampa tasted like strawberries on a summer evening.

Vince apart, there was limited excitement on the pitch. Brave’s new-ball bowlers, Craig Overton and Michael Hogan, used the pace and bounce of a fresh surface to good effect and Fire’s top order self-destructed against the moving ball, epitomised by Pope losing his off stump while attempting to reverse-lap Overton over short third.

The Ageas Bowl was sold out, though not quite at full capacity with two of the temporary stands for England’s T20Is against India and South Africa covered and unused, and felt subdued for much of the night. A clash with the Commonwealth Games means that the first eight days of the tournament will be standalone men’s games, and the ground was noticeably emptier – and quieter – at the start of the game than it had been last year.

That also exacerbated the impact of the toss, with conditions significantly harder for batters in the first innings than the second. In the Hundred’s first season, teams taking more powerplay wickets won 68% of games in the men’s competition; on Wednesday night, Brave took three and Fire none. They will lose Overton to England duty soon, but have Tymal Mills and George Garton waiting in the wings.

“The bowlers did a fantastic job and from there the gameplan was fairly simple,” Vince said. “The only way we would let them back into the game was to lose early wickets so there wasn’t a huge amount of scoreboard pressure. Our new-ball bowlers bowled really well and found a little bit of seam movement early on. We took early wickets and stayed in control.”

The Hundred’s organisers openly admit that the first season, launched amid Covid restrictions which impacted the offering both on and off the pitch, had the feeling of a trial run, one which was generally considered to be a qualified success. This year will be the acid test at a time when domestic leagues are threatening to subsume the international game, but the tournament needs an injection of life after a quiet opening night.

As the ECB found when they launched the Twenty20 Cup 20 seasons ago at this same venue, gimmicks and marketing can only take a competition so far. In time, the cricket will have to stand on its own two feet.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/men-s-hundred-2022-fire-outperformed-by-the-fireworks-as-new-hundred-season-starts-with-a-squeak-1327550