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The Hundred is back and with a rare window of opportunity

Following in the wake of an enthralling Ashes, can the much-maligned competition seize its moment?

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
The crowd settle in for opening night of the 2023 Hundred  •  ECB via Getty Images

The crowd settle in for opening night of the 2023 Hundred  •  ECB via Getty Images

Twenty hours and 34 minutes after Alex Carey edged Stuart Broad to Jonny Bairstow, and 110 miles north, Smriti Mandhana pushed Alexa Stonehouse down the ground to kick the third season of the Hundred into gear.
There was not a spare seat at the Kia Oval on Monday evening, but Trent Bridge was only half-full when the official attendance of 8,821 was counted, midway through the run chase of the women's game. A one-sided away win made for a subdued start to the season.
The ground filled up after working hours, with many fans kitted out in Trent Rockets yellow; the eventual 12,402 crowd roared in celebration as Daniel Sams had Tymal Mills lbw on review, pinning him on the boot with seven required off the last two balls. This was the tight finish that the tournament needed.
Like it or loathe it, the Hundred is back. The competition's past, present and future have been discussed incessantly since long before its inception and the debate will rage on over the next four-and-a-half weeks. The last-minute withdrawal of Rashid Khan, the competition's highest-profile overseas player, has heightened its existential crisis.
Rashid pulled out on Monday afternoon, citing an unspecified injury. "It's obviously disappointing not to have him but we've not had him too much anyway," Lewis Gregory, Rockets' captain, sighed at the toss. "I think he was only around for two games last year."
His replacement, Imad Wasim, and Southern Brave's Tim David both arrived on the morning of the game, having played against one another in the final of Major League Cricket (MLC) in Dallas on Sunday night. "Nice to be here in Blighty," David said on the player mic, after Alex Hales drilled one past him at cover. "It's a little bit overcast, isn't it?"
All six overseas players involved in the opening men's game flew in from North America: Finn Allen, Devon Conway and Sams were at MLC with Imad and David, while Colin Munro squeezed in a jaunt at the Global T20 Canada after the end of the Blast. Hales was among his opponents in Canada; Mills returned from the Zim Afro T10 on Saturday morning.
The late arrivals and short preparation period have underlined the sense that for most players, the Hundred is just another stop on the gravy train - a stop that is no longer as competitive financially as it used to be, with MLC offering them more money for less work.
For the domestic players that underpin the tournament, that is not the case. Sam Hain, who top-scored for Rockets on Tuesday night, has spent a decade churning out county runs without convincing England's selectors that he is worth a punt in any format. Spending a season on the bench with first Manchester Originals, then Welsh Fire, did little to twist their arm.
"I've not had a lot of exposure in 100-ball cricket," Hain said. "I'm still trying to get the feel and rhythm of it. I get nervous before every game, but I think nerves are good. It means you care. This is the best cricketers in the country, all going toe-to-toe."
The Hundred offers him the stage that the Blast - where only a fraction of the 133 matches are televised - does not, and his innovative innings of 63 off 39 balls not only rescued the defending champions from 54 for 5, but will have piqued the interest of ECB scouts and England's white-ball management.
And in the women's competition, there are newly-professional cricketers pinching themselves. Mary Taylor, an 18-year-old seamer, took 3 for 18 on Brave debut, having only previously played regional cricket. "The crowds are hugely different," she said. "I love the noise and the crowd: it gets me buzzing. I'm so happy."
Yet there is still a lingering sense that, as the competition enters its third season, nobody quite knows who the Hundred is for. And yet, with no England fixtures - men's or women's - scheduled during the competition's August window, there is also an opportunity for the Hundred to harness what Ben Stokes called "the craze around cricket".
The reality, as Rashid has proved, is that the status quo is not quite good enough. Salaries will have to increase next season, and recruitment refined to encourage teams to sign marquee names. However much the ECB deny it publicly, some form of private investment is inevitable.
In 2005, the final day of the Ashes summer took place on September 12; the only cricket left in the English summer was the fag-end of a County Championship season and a couple of rounds of Sunday League games. By the time the 2006 summer started, the game had retreated behind a paywall.
This year, dual Ashes series have pricked public consciousness, with record viewing and listening figures on Sky and Test Match Special; the ECB says Hundred ticket sales have surged over the last six weeks. For all the criticism over the men's Ashes schedule, it was perfectly sandwiched between two football seasons and has dominated newspaper back pages since mid-June.
Whatever its merits or drawbacks, a competition featuring regular free-to-air games starting the very next day presents the sport with a rare opportunity to seize its moment.
English cricket has been here before, and let similar moments slip. Can the sport afford the Hundred to fail?

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98