Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown

The ECB chair, Ian Watmore, resigned today. It was something of a shock, as it was just over a year since he was hired in 2020. He came into the role at one of the worst times imaginable, with the ECB in an unimaginably poor financial position, The Hundred launch, and the continued spectre of COVID. This should have been the time when these pressures were easing on Watmore, but instead things seemed to unravel in quick succession. The shambolic cancellation of England’s tours to Pakistan, a disastrous meeting with county chiefs, and the lethargic response to Yorkshire’s racism report have meant that he had seemingly lost friends and allies in every sector of English cricket. Ultimately, as Michael Atherton puts it, he lost the dressing room and had to go.

Who takes over the position of ECB chair, and how they choose to approach the role, will have a significant effect on English cricket in the next few years and beyond. There are some huge challenges ahead, and here are some thoughts on a few of them:

The Ashes

The ECB are due to announce their decision tomorrow, but it seems increasingly likely that England’s tour of Australia will broadly go ahead as planned. This was expected, if only because of a cynical appraisal of how important Cricket Australia is to the ECB relative to the Pakistan Cricket Board. It’s certainly difficult to understand the logic behind a declaration that a four-day tour of Pakistan would be onerous on the players and staff whilst a three-month tour of Australia (including over a week just in quarantine) is fine.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, and the past year or so should teach us not to take anything for granted. A spike in Australian infections before or during the tour could put the spotlight back on the England team’s continued involvement. I personally have little sympathy with Cricket Australia, who have only played ODIs and T20Is away from home in the last eighteen months and can’t really understand the toll taken on England’s Test cricketers over that time.

I also think that the England team will have a lot less patience with Australia’s typical tactic of ‘mental disintegration’, both on the field and in the media, which is part of almost every antipodean Ashes. Joe Root is no doubt mindful of the huge financial pressure Cricket Australia are under, with up to $200m riding on the series going ahead, and might well consider taking his team home rather than copping a ton of abuse from people he is doing a huge favour for.

All of which is to say that the incoming chair will have an important and difficult task to handle, straight out of the gate (assuming they are appointed this year). Ensuring the series goes ahead as planned, holding Cricket Australia to their promises, and backing the players if they pull the plug on the whole thing. Whoever gets the job will have to hit the ground running, so to speak.

Pakistan/West Indies

One of the things which precipitated Watmore’s resignation appears to be the fallout from the cancellation of England’s tours of Pakistan. It would therefore be a good move from his successor to repair relations between the two countries as quickly as possible. Announcing a new tour, or an extension of the already-scheduled tour in 2022, would be a good way to go about this. The 2022 tour to the West Indies was expanded by three games as a similar show of gratitude for CWI touring England in 2020, and the chair should reiterate the ECB’s commitment to fulfilling their promises at the earliest opportunity.

On a broader level, it would be nice if the ECB spent more time touring the less financially or politically powerful cricketing nations. England last played an away Test against Bangladesh in 2016, Zimbabwe in 1996, and have never done so against Ireland. We love Test cricket in this country, but its continued survival depends on it being financially viable around the world. If we could find a way to visit these countries, even with weakened and rotated teams, it would go a long way to rebuilding relationships with cricketing nations outside the ‘Big 3’.

The Hundred

It seemed like it cast a vast, dark shadow over English cricket in the months and years leading up to its launch, but the end result felt decidedly unimpressive. Neither a triumphant success nor an unmitigated disaster. Just ‘meh’. Which might be considered a victory for its proponents, if not for the colossal price tag. All told, it’s likely that the true cost of that first season (including the development, design, and other costs in the years before) amounts to well over £100m. If I were to ever spend that kind of money on something, I’d expect nothing less than perfection.

The new ECB chair will undoubtedly want to make some changes for The Hundred’s sophomore season. Cutting the costs might be a good place to start. If the ECB could slice £13m from its £63m annual spend on the competition, it would at least break even. Cut a little more and it could actually start making the profit that Tom Harrison and others have already claimed. There’s certainly a lot of extraneous things which could be removed with little obvious impact to ticket sales, such as the musical guests at every game.

There will be those of you who would love to see The Hundred disappear altogether, but I can’t see that happening before 2025 (the beginning of the next TV deal). It’s in the Sky and BBC contracts, and there’s no backing out of that now. Aside from anything else, I really don’t like people or organisations who renege on their agreements. Polishing the turd is likely the order of the day, before it can be flushed away altogether in the next round of broadcast rights.

Sky TV Deal

Speaking of broadcast rights, the preparation for the next auction will likely be beginning soon. For all their faults, Colin Graves and Tom Harrison did oversee the first English cricket being shown on free-to-air TV since 2005 (even if it was just T20Is and The Hundred). The new ECB chair will have the opportunity to surpass that by some margin, if they choose to prioritise the growth of the game over the accumulation of money. In other words: Put live Test cricket back on Channel 4.

It might sound like a great idea to us fans, but it’s worth remembering that the ECB chair is elected by the counties who all rely on the cash they receive from the central TV contracts. A debt-ridden club, of which there are a few, might well prioritise getting an extra £2m every year over the exposure that Freeview provides. If the chair can’t persuade the counties to accept a bit less money, their tenure in the job could be as short as Ian Watmore’s.

The decision may not be as clear cut as this. BT has seemingly losing interest in their sports division whilst streaming giants like Amazon have launched their own coverage for events like the US Open in tennis. It’s a different world, which could lead to the value of English cricket’s coverage climbing or plummeting. Given this uncertainty, the ECB chair’s responsibility of ensuring maximum exposure for the game whilst keeping it solvent is not one I envy.

Yorkshire

It’s been three years since Azeem Rafiq first made his complaints known to several people at Yorkshire CCC, thirteen months since the county finally launched an investigation into the matter, and almost two months since they received the finished report. In all that time, the ECB have done nothing. It stinks, especially when you compare it to the high-profile and instant reaction to Ollie Robinson’s old tweets earlier this year. It would be nice to think that the new ECB chair could finally get things moving, although the cynical side of me has its doubts.

To become chair of the ECB, you have to be voted in by a majority of forty county representatives (both the major and minor counties). That includes Yorkshire, as well as any other counties who have their own skeletons in the closet. Quite simply: It would be difficult to see someone getting the job if they were committed to investigating and punishing racism at the counties. This is a short-sighted approach, as allowing the issue to continue unabated will only cause more problems for the clubs later on, but none of the county chairs seem particularly inclined to see it from this viewpoint.

County Cricket

The meeting which reportedly brought Ian Watmore’s tenure as ECB chair to an end was in large part about the future shape of English domestic cricket. There is also considerable tension between the counties which host The Hundred teams and those who don’t. With four domestic competitions and a packed international calendar, it will be no easy feat for his successor to keep everyone happy. In fact, it may well be impossible.

Given that the counties elect the ECB chair, whoever gets the job will have to be persuasive in getting everyone to compromise. It’s something of a tightrope, balancing the interests of all 18 counties, and I don’t have much hope for the outcome being particularly welcomed by county cricket fans.

Women’s Cricket

If the Hundred had one almost undeniable success, it was in the performance and popularity of the women’s competition. It had attendance and viewing figures not far removed from that of the men’s games, which begs the question: What next?

One obvious issue which could be quickly addressed is that of pay: The women were paid less than a sixth of what the men received on average. There is certainly a case for that imbalance to be at least partly remedied. The new chair might also see an opportunity to increase the value to the ECB of these likeable and talented cricketers by encouraging Sky to broadcast women’s domestic games outside of The Hundred.

On a personal note, I would also love to see women’s Test cricket on a regular basis. It baffles me that the women’s team play almost no matches in the format which is by far the most popular and profitable for their male counterparts. If the ECB could see their way to persuading every touring team to play at least one Test, I think it would go a long way towards ‘traditional’ (ie old) cricket fans fully embracing women’s cricket.

Participation

As people often seem to forget, the ECB is responsible for amateur cricket in England and Wales as well as the professional game. Cricket clubs seem to get very little support from their governing body, and are rarely listened to. Volunteers are taken for granted, monolithic schemes such as All Stars or Dynamos are thrust upon clubs, and hours of bureaucratic admin and tech support are inflicted on club secretaries through ClubSpark and PlayCricket.

It would be incredible if the new ECB chair could do something about this. There are two key themes which I think need to be addressed: Simplicity and flexibility. The first is easy: Running a local cricket club should not have to be a full-time (unpaid) job. It should not require expertise in computers, social media and finances as well as (you would hope) some knowledge of cricket. It shouldn’t take months to adapt to the software you use for scoring. These are all long-standing issues which the ECB never seem inclined to tackle.

The second fundamental change I would love to see from the ECB is to recognise the enormous diversity of clubs in English cricket. Some have hundreds of members, some barely have eleven. Some have pavillions, and some don’t. Some are in affluent areas, and some aren’t. Some teams are focused on winning at all costs, some are more social clubs. Whenever a new scheme is released by the ECB, it always seems like it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Thats fine if your club fits (like, I would guess, most ECB Premier League teams), but it leaves a lot more on the outside looking in. A more flexible, attentive attitude towards club cricket could really help boost participation (or at least slow its decline) across the country.

Restructuring

As I have said several times now through this post, the ECB chair is elected essentially by the counties. This means that the counties’ needs (mostly money) are prioritised over the interests of every other ‘stakeholder’ in English cricket; The players, proponents of the women’s game, people involved in local clubs, and of course the fans. This is just the fundamental structure of the ECB.

In order to break the cycle of counties pressuring the ECB to maximise revenues to prop up their own mismanaged clubs at the expense of every other aspect of the sport, the long term solution is to introduce representatives of everyone the ECB holds sway over as members and decisionmakers of equal importance to the counties. Organisations such as the Professional Cricketers Association, the Cricket Supporters’ Association and the assorted club cricket organisations absolutely deserve to have some say over who makes decisions on their behalf.

It would undoubtedly be a hard sell to persuade the counties to cede some of their power, but it’s difficult to see the ECB becoming a functioning governing body whilst the people running it are beholden to just one interest group.

Conclusion

The more I wrote of this post, the more I felt sorry for Ian Watmore. It’s clear that it’s a virtually impossible job, which explains why no one seems to have particularly fond memories of any ECB (or TCCB) chairman in the history of the sport.

There is, of course, one outstanding candidate: George Dobell. Well liked by many involved in running county cricket, a founder of the Cricket Supporters’ Association and a known proponent for reforming the game. He’s also currently between jobs and presumably available to take over at short notice. If there is one person who can address all of the points in this post, and basically save English cricket, it’s George Dobell.

Otherwise, we’re screwed.

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