It has now been confirmed that Tom Harrison finally left the ECB three days ago. In the four weeks since he announced his resignation, I’m not sure anyone outside the ECB has had a kind word to say about him, but neither are they really laying into him.
This upsets me.
The first thing to say is that he has arguably had a greater impact on English cricket in the modern era than anyone else. This is not a compliment. On the field, the men’s and women’s white ball teams are faltering whilst the men’s Test team has almost totally collapsed. Off the field, the sport has descended into a sitcom farce of relentless incompetence, ignorance and a total failure to learn from mistakes.
Most of the press articles about Harrison seem to suggest that he is a nice person who made misguided decisions, or more mistakes than not, but is that really the case? He is at heart a marketing man, and it feels to me like the thing he marketed most during the last seven years was himself. With such people, who treat misleading people as a professional skill, you have to look at what they do rather than what they say. Looking at his actions over the past seven years does not portray him in a good light at all.
Racism within English cricket appears to be the greatest immediate threat to the ECB, with Parliament taking a close interest in the governing body’s reactions to complaints. Harrison has made several strident statements on the subject but the organisation which he runs has done almost nothing.
It is worth reminding people that Azeem Rafiq was by no means the first Black or Asian person to make allegations of racism in public. Ebony Rainford-Brent, Michael Carberry, Dave Burton, Mark Alleyne, Owais Shah, Devon Malcolm, Ismail Dawood and John Holder had all previously spoken about their experiences in the press, and Harrison’s ECB did nothing. Nor did Harrison intervene during Yorkshire CCC’s review which took almost a year to complete. Even after the damning report leaked and the ECB top brass were raked over the coals by a Parliamentary committee, nothing appears to have occurred. Despite over six months passing, neither Yorkshire CCC nor any of its past or current employees have even faced an ECB disciplinary panel.
Some people have chosen to give Harrison some credit for the growth in women’s cricket, but I would argue that he had very little to do with his two purported triumphs: The 2017 World Cup win and the popularity of the women’s Hundred.
It was Giles Clarke and David Collier who were in charge of the ECB when it decided to make its women’s international cricketers fully professional in 2014, and they were also likely the people who applied to host the event. With these two key advantages, three years of full time training plus playing at home, it was Harrison and Graves’ predecessors who had the greatest positive impact on the England women’s team.
As for The Hundred, it was only because of COVID-19 that the women’s competition received so much attention. Harrison’s plan for the first season was for the women’s teams to play the majority of their games away from the eight grounds hosting the men, including several at amateur club grounds. Sky Sports had only committed to showing the eight group stage matches held at the main venues plus the finals, which meant more than half of the women’s competition wouldn’t be televised at all. Once the pandemic struck, it suddenly became untenable for isolation bubbles and testing facilities to be formed at twenty grounds across the country. The decision was made to instead make every match a doubleheader, and the rest is history.
The more pertinent question regarding how Harrison views women’s cricket is: Following these moments of good fortune, what did he do next? After the 2017 World Cup win at a sold out Lord’s, the England women’s team hasn’t played a single match in the nation’s capital, and only one ODI at a Test venue. Despite conclusively demonstrating their popularity, many of the players becoming celebrities in the process, they have been denied access to the larger venues and fanbases that they deserve. Whilst Australia forged ahead with a fully professional domestic structure, England lagged behind in order to tie contracts in with The Hundred. Even now, at least thirty cricketers in the women’s Hundred won’t be paid for eleven months per year. This separates it not only from Australia, but also the men’s competition.
The ECB appear to have failed to capitalise on any momentum for the women’s Hundred too. This year’s The Hundred has been scheduled to clash with the Commonwealth Games being held in Birmingham, which features women’s cricket as an event. This means that the women’s Hundred will have eight fewer group games than the men’s competition. Harrison has also approved a pay rise for both men and women in The Hundred which have increased the average pay gap between the two from £45,000 to £50,000. This is in spite of women’s matches attracting strong viewing figures and women cricketers being used extensively in advertising and sponsorship.
Tom Harrison was himself referred for an internal investigation regarding his behaviour towards former Leicestershire CCC chair Mehmooda Duke in February. Duke resigned in November 2021, just after a meeting led by Harrison to determine the ECB’s response to the devasting claims made by Azeem Rafiq to the DCMS Parliamentary committee. She later told people that she had been “intimidated”, “coerced”, “manoeuvred” and treated as a “token woman of colour” by the ECB. Nothing has since been reported regarding the investigation although, given the glacial pace of the ECB disciplinary procedures under Harrison’s leadership, it’s entirely possible that this is because nothing has happened yet.
Harrison has at best ignored club cricket during his tenure, and at worst manipulated it for his own ends. The creation of All Stars and Dynamos cricket seems, in hindsight, to have had more to do with forming an undemanding target to justify his ‘performance-related’ bonus rather than improving youth participation. Likewise, changes to how Play-Cricket (The scoring platform/website used within amateur cricket) operates have turned club cricketers into data points and commodities for the ECB. Harrison himself has bragged about how they now have “a database of over two million fans”, which they are using to “understand [fans] to an incredible level of detail”. This would be of immense surprise to almost all of those two million fans, which could indicate how ethical his actions have been.
As for the game’s finances, his raison d’être, how much did he really contribute? The TV auction in 2017 was the first and only time in the ECB’s history that two subscription channels were bidding against each other for the rights to English cricket, and so it seems likely that almost anyone would have secured a substantial increase in broadcast revenue. His response to this good fortune was to spend all of the ECB’s reserves trying to bolster The Hundred, the timing of which could not have been worse as COVID-19 struck.
This led to his other purported ‘triumph’, of ensuring England internationals continued largely unabated. Of the twelve full ICC members, only Ireland and Zimbabwe failed to host Tests, ODIs and/or T20Is in the first year of the pandemic. Pretty much everyone in cricket did it, and every other professional sport which I could name too. Was it a stressful, unpleasant, and testing time for everyone at the ECB? Certainly, not least for the 62 employees that Harrison fired. If every professional sport, every team, found a way to make it through, was it really much of achievement? The only reason the ECB faced such financial peril in the first place was because of Harrison’t profligacy with the reserves.
Harrison has been a parasite within English cricket, enriching himself to the detriment of the game. Over the last seven years, he has been paid well over £4m. He has demonstrated clear evidence of being malicious, ignorant, shortsighted and incompetent. His triumphs are few and his failures many. The absolute worst thing is that he has been able to mold the entire organisation in his own image in the past seven years. He has hired or promoted almost every single person at management level within the ECB, and I struggle to name more than one or two who I wouldn’t consider a spiv or empty suit.
The rot isn’t going to end here either. Decisions Harrison has made will cripple English cricket for years to come. Without an almost total clear out of his acolytes within the ECB, no real improvement will come any time soon.
But he’s gone, and that’s a start.
As always, we welcome your comments on Tom Harrison or any other topic (within the bounds of the law) below.