On the campaign trail
Giles Clarke claims not to be a politician. Yet here he is, at a school in a deprived area of Bristol, his hometown, opening a fitness centre that bears his name. He wants to talk about the ECB's investment in the grass roots of the sport, but inevitably, at a time of great flux in world cricket (and this was before the Mumbai attacks), he is fielding questions about Stanford, the ICC, the Indian board. The list goes on. And inevitably he is being asked to defend himself against accusation and criticism. In that respect he is the consummate politician, not evasive as such but answering the question he wishes to answer rather than the one that is asked.
Clarke has invited TWC and the Daily Telegraph to the newly opened Merchants' Academy in the Withywood area of Bristol. This is a £22m state academy, part funded by the Society of Merchant Venturers, the 450-year-old commercial institution for Bristol's movers and shakers of which Clarke is a member. He is understandably enthused, both about the project as a whole and about a boy he has just seen, who had never played cricket before, bowling inswing in the sports hall.
TWC has 20 minutes with the chairman but they are ticking by as Clarke delivers a monologue on grass-roots cricket and sport's role in the education of young people. The question "Can I ask you about some other stuff?" brings a knowing smile from Clarke. "I shall be offering no stroke outside off stump to many of your questions," he replies. This is something of a surprise. This is the equivalent of Virender Sehwag saying he might leave a few during the first 15 overs of a one-dayer. Normally if you give Clarke balls to hit, he will go after them, which is why he enjoys a grudging admiration among most pressmen. They may not like him especially, or what he stands for, but he is accessible, voluble, clubbable and opinionated - and that is what really counts for the gentlemen of Fleet Street.
Clarke's apparent reticence relates to the ongoing saga of negotiations between the ECB and its Indian counterpart relating to England players' availability for the Indian Premier League. This in turn impacts on whether Indian players will be allowed to play in the English Premier League, which kicks off in 2010. Without Indian involvement in that tournament, the television rights would have little value in Asia and so be less lucrative for the ECB. Not a politician, Giles? He and David Collier, chief executive, had just returned from Mumbai, where they had met their Indian equivalents but reached resolution only on India playing five Tests in England in 2011, a coup but a mere hors d'oeuvre compared with the meat of the IPL issue.
Of course, Clarke is still outspoken - Sehwag has not become Alastair Cook. It is just that a year into this (unpaid) job he is defending himself and the board against all the inevitable brickbats rather than setting out his manifesto.
He accepts almost none of the criticism (of which there is plenty from inside and outside the game) that has been directed at him or the ECB. From within the game there is a concern that the EPL, the 20-over tournament that will replace the Pro40 in 2010, is a fudge (20 teams rather than the nine-team event suggested by MCC's chief executive, Keith Bradshaw). In addition there is a fear that it is undervalued commercially because it is part of the £300m exclusive TV deal with Sky and Allen Stanford has an option on sponsoring it.
The test for Clarke will come in March when he faces re-election. "I won't be campaigning," he says. "I'm running a national sport, not a political party." Giving this interview might be seen as part of the campaign trail. He brushes off the concern about Twenty20 overkill, as expressed globally by many people, whether supporters, commentators or players. "All of the research that we did showed 69% of people who went to Twenty20 wanted more."
He is withering about the mass of criticism aimed at the Stanford Super Series in Antigua. He blames it on the press whipping up a self-interested storm. But what about the criticism from Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? Surely you have to take that seriously? "Well, Andy Burnham made some remarks when he hadn't been fully briefed by us. He put forward a certain type of view." Burnham's view, which a DCMS spokesman confirmed he still stands by, was that "he feels uneasy about a sporting contest being more about the money at stake rather than the competition itself and the pride of winning" - a view that would be shared by the vast majority of cricket supporters in the UK, despite Clarke's belated attempt to shift the focus on to the investment in grass-roots projects in the Caribbean.
A question about the future of cricket, about where the game will be in five years' time, causes a deep intake of breath. Is the great schmoozer lost for words? Not quite. "The game has to decide what the ICC does, what is its role. It has to determine its calendar over a lengthy period. Four years is not practical. At the same time we have to respect quality. Test cricket is the summit of the game and it must be played by the best countries. There is no doubt that when Test cricket is good, it is wonderful." So does that mean less Test cricket but better Test cricket?
"Yes. That is the real test of the player in mental and physical strength, the tension and excitement we feel as a series develops. And we have to care about the World Cup as a major event. The 2007 World Cup was unsuccessful in virtually every feasible aspect. The 2011 World Cup is a huge thing for the ICC because they have to get it right."
There is a common sense and logic to everything Clarke has just said but common sense and logic often seem to give way to greed and self-interest in the international corridors of cricket power. Clarke, though, serial entrepreneur and ECB fund-raiser extraordinaire, would probably not see it quite like that.