January 2008

The ECB's merchant venturer

Giles Clarke is wealthy, outspoken and multilingual - not your everyday cricket administrator

'We're heading towards player rotation with more specialists' © Getty Images

"Don't play backgammon or bridge against me," says the new ECB chairman, Giles Clarke, with a smirk, a reference to his gambling his way through Oxford.

"My father taught me backgammon early on and my grandfather was an international bridge player," he continues. "Both games tend to be played by people with money and, as someone who believes in standing on your own feet, that was my way of so doing. It improves your nerve, teaches you about risk, and both are very mathematical."

Clarke, 54, is what the tabloids like to call a colourful character. "I don't really do one thing," he says with the air of a man unencumbered by the burden of self-doubt. A serial entrepreneur, his business interests have been varied and include Majestic Wine, which he acquired for £100,000 in the early 1980s and sold in 1989 for £15m, Pet City, and the Safestore self-storage company. He is currently chairman of Amerisur Resources, a company involved in oil and gas exploration in Paraguay and Colombia. He is also on the committee of The Society of Merchant Venturers, an invitation-only collection of Bristol's movers and shakers that dates back 450 years. This interview was conducted in his own restaurant in Bristol's redeveloped docklands.

He studied Arabic and Persian at Oxford and speaks a handful of Asian languages. "It caused a bit of excitement at an ICC meeting recently when I was speaking to Naseem Ashraf [the Pakistan board chairman] in Urdu and no one else knew what we were saying," he laughs, straying slightly into showing-off territory.

Clarke's election as ECB chairman in September had a degree of inevitability about it. As chairman of Somerset he had been one of the higher-profile "suits" round the counties. But his claim to fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) was as chairman of the ECB's marketing committee, in 2004, at a time when the board had no commercial director. He delivered the infamous £220m broadcasting deal that sold all live TV rights to Sky. His opponent for the chairmanship Mike Soper, who was favourite to win the ballot, had plenty of supporters around the counties but Clarke cuts a persuasive figure and also one who seems highly skilled at making lots of cash, which goes down well in the hard-pressed shires. "No one questions the commercial competence of the ECB anymore," he says.

In less than a year the ECB will expect to be dotting the 'i's and crossing the 't's on the next four-year broadcasting deal. It is currently involved in what Clarke calls "market testing". He expects the deal to be very different but does not accept there is a fundamental problem in no live cricket on free-to-air television, which does not suggest a return to the BBC or Channel 4. However, the broadcasting landscape has changed so much that it seems unlikely Sky will clean up as they did in 2004. The emergence of video on demand, video on mobile phones and the advance of broadband technology mean that what the ECB has to sell is a wholly different package from the last deal.

"Everything's changed," Clarke says. "Twenty20 is a fascination for broadcasters because the time-frame is almost equivalent to that of a football match. I would expect a different approach to highlights and a different approach to Pro40." In August Clarke helped the ECB broker a five-year deal with ESPN-Star for rights to show English cricket in Asia. "We are now in negotiations with two broadcasters in other parts of the world just for the Twenty20 Cup and the Pro40," he says. "I hope to build a supporter base for county cricket in the subcontinent like football has done."

There is no doubting Clarke's passion for cricket. He still turns out for his local village, Wrington in north Somerset, and talks knowledgeably and excitedly about it. But there is also no escaping that his primary focus when talking about cricket as a whole is money. For him money-making is about safeguarding the future of the game, improving facilities, investing in grass roots. Which is fine in theory, except that the more money that comes into the game, the more players expect to be paid, the more the counties expect to receive (including their players) and so on.

Clarke accepts "the dichotomy between how much cricket our international side plays and the funds required for the recreational game and ground improvements". But his solution makes depressing reading for any of the 58% of TWC readers who think England play too much cricket. "We're heading towards rotation, more specialists and different sides put out in different forms of the game and against different types of opposition." I put it to him that only Australia has the strength in depth to carry this off and squad rotation would simply play further into their hands. "That's a perfectly legitimate comment but all I can say is we're going to have to. It's not unreasonable to consider that England could field some highly effective XIs against some of the Test sides."

So those who want less cricket are likely to be disappointed. If anything, there is likely to be more. In essence the market will decide. "Everyone recognises we have to fund the game," says Clarke. "And funding is increasingly about academies and bigger grounds [Lord's, The Oval and Edgbaston have plans to increase capacity]. And if we are going to have bigger grounds, then we have to give them games to stage."

Bigger grounds, he says, will allow tickets to be graded more affordably, which given the exorbitant prices being charged at Lord's and The Oval next summer (up to £103), is something to be cheered if it comes to pass.

The F-word - Fletcher - comes up almost by accident and he is in mid-flow when he checks himself with a classic entrepreneurial mantra: "I'm not very interested in the past" - interested enough, though, to say "there was a disconnect between Duncan Fletcher and the whole of the ECB management. That won't happen again, at least not on my watch"

Clarke wants to "improve the spectator experience" by having better drained grounds and better pitches at all levels of the game. "We need really good cricket wickets. Groundsmen shouldn't be rewarded for producing 700-plus wickets," he says, well aware that his own county, Somerset, have been guilty of exactly that. "After making 315, Justin Langer said to the Somerset committee, 'Gentlemen, you are going to kill cricket with wickets like that'." He is keen on four-day Test matches and wants umpires to have sole responsibility for judging bad light.

Another of Clarke's bugbears is the "fantastic amount of ludicrous paperwork" that "enmeshes the recreational game". "I've been to see James Purnell [Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport] and told him this is wasting money and time, upsetting volunteers, and they won't put up with it. It's their free time and they don't want to fill out damn forms for ever and a day."

This seems to be Clarke's true self emerging - decisive and domineering - which could make for interesting ICC meetings. "One board member said at the end of my first ICC meeting: 'We were wondering what you'd be like and you're definitely not an old fart,'" says Clarke laughing, before realising the comment could be construed as a slight on his predecessor, the 70-year-old David Morgan, which was not intended but perhaps an indication of the perception of the English in certain parts. So what is Clarke like on the international stage: the mollifying Morgan (now ICC president) or his predecessor, the strident Lord MacLaurin? "I wouldn't be like Ian to people from the subcontinent.

"I'll say what I think but I'll know how to say it. There are ways of getting your own way in international cricket without bowling bouncers. You start by trying to understand the other man's point of view."

The F-word - Fletcher - comes up almost by accident and he is in mid-flow when he checks himself with a classic entrepreneurial mantra: "I'm not very interested in the past" - interested enough, though, to say "there was a disconnect between Duncan Fletcher and the whole of the ECB management. That won't happen again, at least not on my watch". The problems arose, he says, because Fletcher refused to report to Tim Lamb, the ECB chief executive when the coach was appointed. Hence the Schofield Report which has resulted in Hugh Morris, as the first managing director of England cricket, becoming Peter Moores' boss.

Clarke will launch the ECB's five-year plan for English cricket in January. It is expected to contain substantial increases in grass-roots funding but he knows those are not the issues that make people notice the chairman of the board. It takes controversy or bad on-field results for people to seek out the boss. "It's true, there are no bouquets for my job. but at least I don't get paid for it." Not that he needs the money. But I still paid for lunch.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer