Kate Cross and Alex Hartley: ‘The Hundred completely exceeded our expectations’

With one day to go until the 2022 edition of the Hundred women’s competition starts, Kate Cross and Alex Hartley are preparing to play for different teams.

The duo have played together for Lancashire since 2017, and for England on three occasions in 2019. They were part of the Manchester Originals side during last year’s Hundred competition.

But whilst Cross will turn out for the Originals again this summer, Hartley decided to instead enter this year’s draft, where she was picked up by Welsh Fire.

Both players host one of the most popular cricket podcasts available today – No Balls: The Cricket Podcast. The intrigue of being on opposite sides for this season hasn’t been lost on either co-host.

Speaking exclusively to Sporf ahead of The Hundred women’s tournament, Cross and Hartley explained exactly what that will feel like.

Cross said: “We’ve spoken about it 400 or 500 times on the podcast! To be honest, last year, playing in the same team was really good, because we were able to give people an insight into what it was like, behind the scenes and in the dressing room, to have a brand new tournament.

“But now, we’re going to have the contrast of two teams. So it’s going to be a different dynamic. Obviously, we’re going to have a game against each other at Old Trafford, so it’s going to be fun, isn’t it? We’ll make it fun. That’s what the tournament is all about.”

Hartley added: “I think people have hyped it up [playing against each other] more than we have. I know, like the night before, we’ll definitely extend a little good luck to each other, but we might not mean it…”

The ‘fun’ that Cross alludes to was a vital part of the marketing strategy by the England and Wales Cricket Board for last year’s Hundred.

Live entertainment, such as music, was mixed with entertaining cricket, and a new format. The result was a product that would entice young and new fans alike to interact with the sport like never before.

That strategy certainly worked. A total of 16.1 million people tuned in to The Hundred across Sky, BBC and online services.

But the key statistic lies in viewer retention rates for women’s sport. According to The Guardian, out of the 4.8 million new viewers of women’s cricket during The Hundred, 71 per cent of people went on to watch other women’s sport.

In 2020, the ECB announced that 41 female players would be given full-time domestic contracts. That was an increase on the previous number of 25. For this year, funding was provided for a further 10 contracts. Including the England centrally contracted players – of which Cross is one, while Hartley also has a professional contract – the total number of professional players now stands at 67.

It is fair to say that The Hundred has played a considerable role in the continuing growth of women’s cricket in England. The height of its impact surprised even the players.

Cross explained: “Playing in it, it completely exceeded our expectations. I think, to be fair, they were pretty low to start with, because we didn’t know what to expect, or what it was going to look like. All we knew was that the cricket would be the cricket, and we knew how to play that bit.

“But the rest of it was just amazing. To be honest, we all came out of it and wanted to do it all again straight away, which I think is probably the mark of how good the tournament was for us as players.

“And in terms of in the women’s game, it just seemed to be the platform that we needed in the UK to put women, and women’s cricket in particular, on stage, and showcase what we can do, and what we work so hard behind the scenes doing. The only thing that annoyed me was the stage I was going to do the toss on!”

Hartley added: “It was just an amazing tournament to be a part of. And the fact that we had all the fireworks and all the fans.

“Going into it, I was a bit apprehensive, that first game that was just the women’s game, of how many people are actually going to turn up. And then when you look around, and there’s 10,000 fans in. The crowd just kept building and building every game that was played. And it was genuinely just so much fun to be a part of.

“Obviously, the cricket itself was amazing as well, and the fact that we got loads of young girls and boys playing cricket. That was the main point of it, really.”

The opening match of the women’s tournament, between Manchester Originals and Oval Invincibles, set the tone for the Hundred. A peak audience of 1.95 million tuned in. They were the highest viewing figures for a women’s cricket match in UK history.

Those who watched got the opportunity to see Cross set a memorable record. Primarily a right-arm pace bowler by trade, she is also more than handy with the bat. She regularly bats in the top four for her domestic side, North West Thunder.

She smashed the first six ever hit in Hundred cricket, powering Danielle Gregory over the long-on boundary. It’s something Hartley says that, a year on, she still hasn’t stopped talking about.

After landmark tournaments like The Hundred, the focus is naturally on whether new viewers retain the same level of interest in the sport they have watched.

That has been helped by a continuous marketing campaign by the domestic counties, and women’s teams. For instance, back in June, Cross and Hartley’s North West Thunder side played at Old Trafford against the Southern Vipers. It was part of a double-header alongside the Lancashire men’s T20 Blast game.

Whilst this has been done on a number of occasions before, the significance was that the Thunder game was given the main event, primetime slot of 7pm, for the first time in a double-header at the ground. Nearly 50,000 people, in the ground and online, tuned in to watch the match.

YouTube video

For the next home game at Old Trafford, over 86,000 people watched the live stream. Then, for the opening match of the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy, 70,000 views were recorded.

Hartley spoke to us about the significance of the double-header event, and how it shows that the interest in women’s cricket is ever-increasing.

“What The Hundred has done, is it has shown to us, as female athletes, that the interest is there. Once the marketing has been out there, and people can see the games, and see when the girls are actually playing, people are actually interested.

“The fact that we had over 55,000 people watch our Thunder game shows that the interest is still there. I think that helps with the platform that The Hundred built. Putting the marketing and the advertising out, and us being equal to the men and everything like that. It has shown that people are interested in women’s cricket.”

Finally, both women spoke about their ambitions – apart from getting each other out – for this season’s edition of The Hundred, which promises to be even bigger and better than season one.

The start of the Hundred women’s competition has been pushed back a week to August 11, due to the Commonwealth Games. Cross has been part of the England squad that finished in fourth place in the cricket event. It was played in the T20 format.

YouTube video

Cross explained: “I think we’ve obviously had a platform created last year, in terms of the fanbase and the number of people that tuned in to watch women’s cricket in particular, but generally the tournament.

“I think if that exceeded our expectations, then we can really set higher standards this year for what we want to achieve, in terms of the tournament, the number of people that come to games, the number of sellout crowds we get hopefully.

“Old Trafford, that was something that we can definitely push more on the women’s side. There weren’t as many people coming and watching the women’s games as there were the men. So I think the fact that there’s a thirst for it there, and people do want to watch women’s cricket, it’s just if you can showcase it on the right platforms and let people know when to come and watch, and how to watch it, then people will.

“I think the biggest difference I’ve seen as well with The Hundred, compared to other teams I’ve played for, like the women’s Big Bash or wherever, is that I think we’ve played every single game on a first-class ground. We played at Old Trafford, or Lord’s, or The Oval. So the quality of cricket is automatically going to be better, because you’re on better pitches.

“I think in the past, the women’s teams have almost been pushed aside and played at smaller grounds that are more suited to women’s cricket. But I actually think, you put us on the better pitches, you get better cricket, because there’s more pace, more carry etc. So the game is automatically more entertaining.”

Hartley added: “I don’t think there’s too much more I can add to that. I think we just need to build on everything that we started last year. You know, last year was sort of a learning curve, wasn’t it? Yes, The Hundred had been planned for a few years. But it was the first time, and it was sort of learning on the job.

“Hopefully, we can build on that, and get more and more people involved.”

The Hundred women’s competition begins on Thursday, August 11. Defending champions Oval Invincibles take on Northern Superchargers at The Oval.

Kate Cross and Manchester Originals have their first game on Saturday, August 13. They face Trent Rockets at Old Trafford, with an 11am start time. Meanwhile, Alex Hartley and Welsh Fire are also in action on Saturday. They take on Birmingham Phoenix at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, with a 2:30pm start time.

The Hundred is cricket’s newest competition that fuses blockbuster entertainment with world-class cricket. 100 balls per team, most runs win. Every ball counts. Eight teams from seven cities with men’s and women’s competitions taking place side by side.

No Balls: The Cricket Podcast is hosted by Kate Cross and Alex Hartley. It is available on BBC Sounds. To listen to previous episodes, click here.

Featured Image Credit: England and Wales Cricket Board