The ECB fails to deliver

A horrible split is emerging in the English game where one side fears the other is deliberately plotting the destruction of county cricket

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Professional sport brings an unparalleled and immediate accountability. A player can make a mistake and lose his place in a team for weeks. A coach can lose a run of games — or simply fail to win a trophy — and find himself out of work in an instant. But what about the people who run sports themselves?

Sometimes sport governance can work to the detriment of sport itself

Across the country, there are sports administrators and executives doing a great deal for little reward and few thanks. Thousands struggle to keep afloat small clubs and the leagues in which they compete. Sports stars, experts from business and local worthies serve in organisations from Sports England to local netball leagues and speedway competitions.

But exemplary service is not universal. Sometimes sport governance — with its focus on commercial deals, revenues and politics, and wars waged between competing egos — can work to the detriment of sport itself.

Nowhere is this truer, as the case of Azeem Rafiq shows, than in cricket. After Rafiq revealed he was the repeat victim of racism throughout his career at Yorkshire, the county’s leading lights seemed intent on self-immolation. The club ignored the complaints before eventually investigating them, and even when an inquiry verified Rafiq’s account, they claimed the word “Paki” had been used “in the spirit of friendly banter.”

Whatever spirit you can ascribe to racist abuse, the spirit of the investigation was dismissive, defensive and counter-productive. Not only did Yorkshire refuse to accept its ethical duty to prevent racial discrimination, its executives did the county no commercial or professional favours either. Important sponsors disassociated themselves, and talented young Asian cricketers growing up in the county — home of communities like Bradford and Dewsbury — will be reluctant to sign up to play for a club accused of institutional racism.

But take a look, too, at the national governing body for cricket. Since the turn of the century, the ECB has consolidated and centralised its influence in the game, weakening the county clubs, which traditionally held the power.

At first, this was sensible: central contracts for England players prevented injuries caused by playing too much, led to greater consistency in selection, and fostered a collective mentality among those who played for the national team. The ECB sought and won its powers for cricketing reasons, and the change worked: England went from among the worst to among the very best in the world game.

But more recently the ECB has hoarded power for quite different reasons. For no logical reason, cricket has long been a sport lacking confidence about its “relevance” in the modern world and its appeal to younger generations. And the rise of Twenty20 cricket — the fast and furious version of the game, with sixes struck and wickets taken every couple of minutes — was supposed to be the saviour.

For no logical reason, cricket has long been a sport lacking confidence about its “relevance” in the modern world

But in England, where T20 was first pioneered, while the short format was popular with fans new and old, the opportunity was not exploited to the maximum. Matches were hidden away on pay television, the ECB marketing budget was negligible and the match schedule often bewildering. The comparison with the Indian Premier League — which, according to some, now rivals football’s English Premier League for commercial value — made some cricket executives green with envy.

Yet while they were right to want to rival the IPL, the ECB got everything else wrong. Eighteen teams are too many, they thought: far better to have fewer matches with more attention on each. Counties were unfashionable, they judged: better to create new city franchise teams. And without the counties, the ECB could control the new tournament, the revenues and the future of the wider game.

But of course the counties refused to surrender the Blast, the existing T20 tournament, so the ECB was forced to manufacture an entirely new game. The Hundred would last for one hundred balls (awkward when cricket is played in six ball overs) and comprise new teams with names such as Birmingham Phoenix — a word whose only significance in the second city was that it recalled the doomed consortium that finally killed off the Rover car plant. If you were a Warwickshire supporter whose favourite player was Sam Hain, you would have to cheer on not Birmingham but the Manchester Originals, for whom Hain played despite not coming from Manchester originally.

The ECB did everything it could to ensure The Hundred was a success. Despite hiding the Blast on pay TV, it put The Hundred on the BBC. In contrast to the county game, or even England matches, it spent a fortune on marketing the tournament. It gave out thousands of free tickets and lined up broadcasters and players to propagandise to an extent that would have made an editor of Pravda blush.

And yet it was completely hollow. Had the Blast been backed in the same ways, it would have had more success. Already, few can remember which of the synthetic teams emerged from the tournament, victorious. The Hundred won smaller crowds at grounds like Edgbaston and the Oval than often turn out for T20. And a horrible split is emerging in the English game, in which one side fears the other is deliberately plotting the destruction of county cricket.

That might sound paranoid, but with the track record of the executives at the ECB, it probably isn’t too wide of the stumps. Which raises the question: in whose interests and to what purpose is the game governed?

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