Save English Cricket From The ECB
An appeal and a promise to the Minister of Sport
Nigel Huddleston Esq MP
Minister for Sport
By all reports the England and Wales Cricket Board is about to make a decision with terrible and irreversible consequences for English cricket. This is part of a misguided strategy based on false premises, selective information and wilful ignorance of the historic strengths of English cricket.
The imminent decision is opposed so passionately but so cogently by so many providers and devotees of cricket that there is a real threat of litigation against it. English cricket could well be plunged into legal paralysis and protracted civil war.
We have no personal stake in this decision. We are simply cricket authors and long-standing devotees of the game who have played it, watched it and studied it in over thirty countries, and who now present a regular cricket-themed podcast.
On that basis we beg you to intervene before the decision is taken. We realize that this would contradict the established “hands off” policy of your Department not to involve itself directly in sports administration. That is why we ask you only to secure a pause to enable the many arguments against the ECB’s decision and strategy to be thoroughly debated and assessed – not least by the ECB itself.
The ECB is proposing to renew for ten years its current media deal for English cricket. This will entail continuance of the Hundred as the centrepiece of broadcast cricket coverage in that period and its dominance of the cricket schedule in August, the peak month of the English season. It would therefore entrench the baleful impact of the Hundred on all the rest of English cricket.
Seen in isolation, the Hundred is a harmless but pointless innovation in cricket. It offers nothing new to the game in playing skills or spectacle for watchers. The ECB has offered no reliable evidence of its commercial success and its ability to attract new spectators to the game. It has not been followed by any other country as a format nor, critically, by major media in other countries. In its second year, it has been largely shunned by overseas stars. Hundred teams will consist mainly of English players sucked away from their counties.
The ECB has never identified the costs and revenues specifically attributable to the Hundred, nor assessed its opportunity cost and the alternative use it could have made of the resources invested in it. In particular the ECB never assessed the potential gains from building on the established profitability of T20 and its success in winning new audiences for all forms of cricket.
The ECB has never taken into account the impact of the Hundred in devaluing and displacing other competitions, especially the County Championship. The Hundred has driven it to the margins of the English cricket season, when playing conditions are at their worst and viewing conditions are at their least enticing. The Hundred has thus ensured that the Championship can no longer fulfil its essential function of preparing players for English Test cricket, which remains the game’s prime source of spectatorship, revenues, investment – and inspiration. We have just completed the worst sequence of Test performances in living memory. The Hundred can only help to ensure that it continues.
The Hundred is not only bad for the health of English cricket but also bad for the health of English children. When the government and the NHS have been rightly campaigning against child obesity it was shameful for the ECB to aim a new cricket competition at children and have it sponsored by junk food.
The ECB has never established why it was necessary to create a new cricket competition as the saviour of English cricket from which the counties, the traditional providers of cricket, were deliberately excluded. They assumed too easily that people had deserted county cricket, ignoring the impressive following which all the counties had built on social media and latterly through streaming. They never explained why people who had deserted cricket teams rooted in their local communities, steeped in local history and culture, should suddenly follow outlandish new teams with no history and an identity confected from marketing babble.
However, the Hundred made total sense as part of an ECB strategy of centralizing its control of the game, and culling the first-class counties or even extinguishing them altogether in favour of a franchise-based system in eight major cities.
We have not space to list all the objections to this strategy. We believe that the following three are compelling on their own:
• Replacing counties with franchises reduces democracy in the game. Counties are members’ organizations through which cricket fans can exercise real local influence. Franchises are not. They treat fans only as passive consumers. The ECB has no accountability to fans.
• Eliminating counties extinguishes the efforts they all make to discover new cricket talent, especially in remote places and disadvantaged communities. It is highly significant that Azeem Rafiq, the prime victim of racism in English cricket, has strongly opposed any reduction of counties. This would restrict the opportunities for future victims to find alternative pathways into top-flight cricket. Franchises have no motive for long-term investment on grounds and infrastructure, as all the counties have undertaken over decades. Franchises are parasites on the talent and facilities developed by others.
• Limiting top-flight cricket to eight cities automatically increases the cost and travelling time for spectators who do not live there. This effect will bear especially on poor and disabled cricket fans.
For all these reasons and more we urge you again to secure a stay in the ECB’s plans – a stay in the execution of English cricket.
We urge you to meet opponents of the ECB to present you the objections in more detail. You would receive expert testimony if they included three guests from our podcast, the distinguished journalist George Dobell, co-founder of the Cricket Supporters Association, Annie Chave, founder and editor of County Cricket Matters, and Andy Nash, former Chairman of Somerset CCC and a director of the ECB until he resigned on principle.
We mean no offence in telling you that they and other guests when asked have failed to identify you as the Minister of Sport. This merely reflects the general priority of sport in government. However, we would like to give you the chance to rectify matters as a guest yourself on our podcast. We are confident that you would find this an entertaining and worthwhile experience – and if you take the course we recommend we would be glad to introduce you as the Minister who saved English cricket.
Peter Oborne Richard Heller