An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at a Hundred team
BBC Sport had exclusive behind-the-scenes access for three days before and during Welsh Fire’s game against Oval Invincibles at The Hundred.
The Welsh Fire players head to a function room at the Sophia Gardens.
It has been three days since they were beaten in Les Cent’s first game and 24 hours before their second game against Oval Invencibles.
Cricketers are known to dislike meetings, so much so that the Fire have decided not to call them.
At the front of the room are two flip charts. Next to him is Fire head coach Gary Kirsten, and next to him is the team’s performance coach and Kirsten’s right-hand man Tom Dawson-Squibb.
“Can the first three batters of the last game stand up?” asks Dawson-Squibb to begin.
With some reluctance, Tom Banton, Joe Clarke and Ollie Pope stepped up, followed by their opponents, three bowlers.
“Let’s start with the game.”
Players take turns trying to spell a word backwards: first magnificent, then tremendous. Neither attempt is successful.
Next Kirsten, the former South Africa batsman and World Cup winning coach with India, speaks, starting with a look back at the loss against Southern Brave in the first match.
The 54-year-old is calm. He holds the room with the players sitting in a semi-circle in front of him.
He slides a powerpoint presentation highlighting some of the team’s problems in the loss, when they managed just 107 runs batting first.
“Any comments on our baptism?” he gently asks the players who are all dressed in fire training kit, some with extra hats.
There is an awkward pause. Finally, England batsman Pope breaks the silence as eyes elsewhere look around and down.
“It’s not how we wanted to start, but we don’t want to stop,” he says. “Those shots can come out another day.”
Firefighters feel much more comfortable when, after the initial review, they break into smaller groups to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their next opponents: the room is now a sea of people shadowing shots or deliveries.
After 15 minutes they meet again to talk as a group.
“His get out of jail is the Yorkie under pressure,” is the opinion of an Invincibles bowler who was a teammate of one of the Fairs elsewhere.
When the discussion turns to one of the Invincibles’ best batsmen, Rilee Rossouw, the comment is: “Don’t bowl the same ball twice. Don’t wait to bowl him. You’ll frustrate him straight away. Bowl wide hole ( to big yorker).”
Throughout the conversation, Kirsten drives the discussion but doesn’t lay out specific plans or tactics. Australian spinner Adam Zampa and bowler Jake Ball are two of the more regular speakers.
Also in the room is Fire data analyst Ben Jones.
He largely takes a back seat, but when he sets out to bowl slower balls at Rossouw, he points out that the South African has one of the best records against such deliveries in the world.
“Oh,” comes the reply, with a few wry smiles around the room.
As the meeting continues, tension rises over the use of data analytics. Where does the data say they should bowl? Should players think for themselves?
Some stay still. Some want to know the numbers, but when, after about 40 minutes, Kirsten closes the meeting, others seem to feel that too much time has been spent worrying about the opposition.
Earlier in the day, David Miller, the Fire’s star overseas batsman, joined the team after missing the first match as he was on international duty with South Africa.
He meets some of his teammates for the first time on the team bus on the way to practice.
Miller breaks the ice: “So how was the first game, guys?”
The bus is otherwise quiet (players at the back, coaches at the front) apart from Kirsten who makes the 15 minute journey from the team hotel in Cardiff Bay to the stadium by bike
Upon arrival, Miller finds his home in the dressing room of one of the few spaces available, a couch in the middle of a room covered in bags, bats, helmets and other cricket equipment.
The rest of the squad only entered the dressing room for the first time 24 hours earlier – the nature of The Hundred means the Welsh fire takes over a room normally occupied by Glamorgan.
As each player arrived, there was a tentative look around before choosing their spot. Josh Cobb, the quiet, understated Fire captain, in the corner and the rest roughly, with batsmen on one side and bowlers on the other.
They eat in a small, windowless room. A group sits around a phone watching the Fulham-Liverpool Premier League match with fantasy football adding extra motivation.
With less than an hour to go before the game, Kirsten gathers the players on the field. “Be aggressive,” he says as he leads a team chat.
Tactical discussion is kept to a minimum.
Cobb has already received a “captain’s packet” of data from the analyst.
It’s simple and color-coded. Green means a match in favor of Fire and red to avoid, such as Invincibles batsman Sunil Narine against spin because of the destructive way he attacks the slow bowlers.
With Fire on the field in the early innings, the dugouts are relaxed early on, helped by a good start with the ball.
“If we get him with a slower ball, I’m going home,” quips Jones, while Rossouw, the player who spoke the most at the team meeting, gets into the action early.
He blasts his third ball for four, causing the jitters, but then gets a thick edge to a wide full delivery and is caught.
“Wide Hole!” shouts one of the coaches on the bench. It’s a perfectly put together plan, even if it’s not what you’d expect.
But as the innings opens, opening bowler Will Jacks, who hits 81 from 45 balls, pushes him on the back foot.
Kirsten is standing just outside the dugout, looking next to Dawson-Squibb.
The fire conceded 63 from the last 20 balls and the power of the Invincibles to 158-5, a challenging score.
The dressing room is silent, the batsmen are shuffling to find equipment. There is no time for speeches or a rallying cry.
“Stay busy,” Kirsten tells Pope as she walks around to have a word in each hitter’s ear.
Bowler David Payne offers more advice. “Give yourself time,” he tells the Pope. “The ball doesn’t catch anything.”
Kirsten makes her first tactical call 15 balls into the chase. He turns to Pope and Ben Duckett, both padded into the dugout to bat next, and tells the latter to bat next if a wicket falls to get a left-hander at the crease.
But the fire chase begins to unravel. First Tom Banton leaves, then Joe Clarke returns, shaking his head after being caught.
The analyst offers occasional observations to Kirsten, but the bench falls silent – very quiet – with its eyes fixed on the field.
Kirsten moves from her seated position to stand by the dugout, but the emotions bubbling beneath are not visible behind a straight face, dark sunglasses and a fire red cap.
Fire lose by 39 runs – their second straight defeat.
It’s almost an hour into the game when Kirsten talks to the players, who have spent time signing autographs and posing for selfies.
The room is silent. Kirsten stays calm.
“We all know it’s not nice to lose,” he says. “It’s not me standing up and saying it’s unacceptable.
“It’s us standing up and saying we can do better. When we come back we have to be better versions of ourselves.”
The Welsh Fire will hope to do so in their third game against Birmingham Phoenix on Saturday.
Whether Kirsten’s composure will be tested in the coming weeks remains to be seen.