Twenty years of the ECB

A whole new board game

Simon Briggs

Andrew Strauss was presented with mementos of his 100th Test by David Collier and Giles Clarke , England v South Africa, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 1st day, August 16, 2012
David Collier and Giles Clarke present Andrew Strauss with mementos for his 100th Test © Getty Images
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Lord's had never heard anything like it. Neither had the residents of St John's Wood. On June 29, 2000, windows around the ground rattled to the beat of a Jamaican reggae band named Third World, who had set up stage to provide lunchtime entertainment on the first day of the Second Test against West Indies. The noise sent a group of MCC traditionalists retreating into their private box, where they were quickly startled a second time: Lord MacLaurin, the most powerful man in the English game, was banging on the window.

"Gentlemen! You have just closed the door on the future of English cricket!" Change was afoot. The previous year, Channel 4's giant billboards had proclaimed: "Cricket just got better." The counties were embarking on the first summer of a two-division Championship, and England's players on their first central contracts. Construction would soon be under way on the National Academy at Loughborough University, there was a new focus on participationfor women and the disabled, and in 2001 marketing man Stuart Robertson launched an expensive survey of consumer habits that would lead to the creation of Twenty20.

Cricket - that most cobwebby and cautious of sports - was finally beginning to modernise. And if Channel 4's arrival as host broadcaster provided a more youthful and dynamic face, the roots of change could be traced back to a more traditional milieu: a committee room in the Lord's Pavilion. It was here, in 1994, after MCC had gathered the great and the good to consider cricket's governance, that the England and Wales Cricket Board was conceived.

Judging from their report, the 12 members of the Griffiths Working Party felt misgivings about the beast they were about to unleash: the untrammelled force of sporting capitalism. (The report expresses concern at the prospect of "some vast and ever-growing central bureaucracy".) Yet this was unquestionably the time for change, with the imminent arrival of the National Lottery promising direct funding for grassroots sport. The old division of cricket's governance into the professional body (the Test and County Cricket Board) and the amateur one (the National Cricket Association) could not be sustained.

MCC's jury recommended a new overarching governing body: the BCBC, or British Cricket Board of Control. After a three-year gestation period, we ended up instead with the ECB. Despite the best efforts of Glamorgan chairman David Morgan, instrumental in setting up the new board, "W" never made it into the abbreviation. The official birthday was January 1, 1997, and the original management team were led by chief executive Tim Lamb - a former Middlesex and Northamptonshire seamer who had gone on to work for the TCCB - and chairman Ian MacLaurin, the man credited with turning Tesco into a high-street giant. So, as the 20th anniversary approaches, it is time for cricket to paraphrase Monty Python: "What have the ECB ever done for us?"

It would be wrong to portray the TCCB as sleepy old duffers, even if they were a cottage industry with barely more than a dozen employees. After all, they brought in some far-reaching changes of their own: the first Sky deal, Sunday play in Tests, and cheap Kwik Cricket sets for primary schools. Yet MacLaurin's recollection of what he encountered in 1997 is a damning "no money and a shambles". He was especially horrified by the England team, described by one former captain as "a bunch of raggy-arsed rangers". The players would drive to a home Test on Tuesday night, put in a weary net session on Wednesday, and take the field on Thursday in an assorted mismatch of kit. As Lamb wryly points out: "Ian was very hot on getting the shop window right, which meant the dressing of the grounds, the corporate branding, the whole look and feel of the game."

MacLaurin says now: "The national team were ranked eighth in the world. It was Tetley Bitter hats, and white and pink helmets - no discipline at all. It was quite sad in some ways, but we ditched the MCC colours and the hat with St George and the dragon - a tradition for many years - and replaced everything with three lions and a coronet. It caused a few ruffles with MCC." What struck the players was the immediate improvement in their living conditions, in particular the end of another tradition: room-sharing on tour. "MacLaurin came in from more of a business angle," says Nasser Hussain, who became England captain in 1999. "His stance was: 'Would you ask two businessmen on a foreign assignment to share a room?' It was give and take: he expected us to be clean-shaven and look smart. But he was very good with the families, booked everyone business-class travel, and treated us like grown-ups."

Not everything clicked. England got worse before they got better, slipping to last in the new Wisden Test rankings after losing at home to New Zealand in 1999. And the World Cup organised by the ECB that same summer was handicapped by a risible opening ceremony and a rumbling pay dispute between the board and the players that contributed to England's hapless exit at the pool stage.

But Hussain's fiery attitude - complemented by Duncan Fletcher's coolly analytical coaching - provided a rallying point. And central contracts were a game-changer. "Before they came in, I felt like an Essex player called up for England," says Hussain. "Afterwards, the priorities were reversed. Bowlers of the mid-1990s like Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser would have played twice as many Tests if they had come along just that little bit later."

If England's performances picked up, however, peaking with the glory of the 2005 Ashes, a significant opportunity was missed behind the scenes. In 2002, MacLaurin visited the 18 county chairmen to explain that he would happily serve another three years. There was a caveat: they had to welcome several non-executive directors from outside cricket on to the ECB's cumbersome 15-man board. He received two letters of support: MacLaurin walked.

This classic piece of sporting parochialism attracted some caustic comment. In hindsight, it looks even worse. Here was the ECB's chance to move closer to the enlightened model set up by New Zealand in the mid-1990s - a board equipped with five business brains and two former Test cricketers, so that selfinterest would not be the guiding principle. But the counties protected their own, and set the tone for a more inward-looking ECB, in which balancing the books often seemed to take priority over the sport's public projection.

The five years Morgan spent as ECB chairman were hardly uneventful, despite his emollient style. He fought an interminable battle over Zimbabwe, rooted in the Labour government's distaste for Robert Mugabe, which played havoc with the 2003 World Cup. Yet there was one moment, early in Morgan's reign, that is now remembered above all else. The deal to give all England's live TV rights to Sky, struck in 2004, is often placed at the door of Giles Clarke, who led the negotiations as chair of the ECB's marketing committee.

Yet, despite the subsequent bellyaching, it is hard to see what else Clarke could have done. The BBC's daytime schedules had closed over since Channel 4 poached Test cricket in 1999, with Cash in the Attic earning bigger audiences than Test matches ever had. And Channel 4's bid of £54m for four years was only £2m higher than their offer for the same timespan in 1998. Sky went in with £220m.

The hidden costs were harder to judge. Channel 4 usually drew a little over a million viewers to their live coverage, and - on average - twice that for the 2005 Ashes. Sky's audiences were around 250,000. The radical solution would have been for the game to swallow the financial hit and reform itself in a leaner model, with fewer first-class counties. But business realpolitik held sway and, after the glorious Oval Test of 2005, the paywall fell on English cricket.

Some would argue it has never been the same since. "It's definitely sad," says MacLaurin. "If I'd been there, I would have taken a lot of persuading. We've got what we've got." Lamb, meanwhile, concedes there had been some form of gentleman's agreement with culture secretary Chris Smith not to take cricket off terrestrial TV, but says it would have been unfair to bind their successors to it. "Come 2004," he added, "the world was a very different place.

Channel 4 made it clear there was not another penny on the table. But critics said we reneged on our promise." In September 2007, the Clarke era got under way in earnest, when he replaced Morgan. Here was a character who could have been created by Dickens, with his penchant for outlandish suits and habit of dismissing challengers with a sneer. Not everyone warmed to him. In a powerful column in the Daily Telegraph last year, Simon Heffer wrote that Clarke displayed "the arrogant, patronising, utter lack of self-awareness one normally associates with the unpleasantly stupid: yet he is an Oxford man and a successful businessman, so has clearly had to work at cultivating this persona".

Together with his trusted chief executive David Collier (who succeeded Lamb in 2005), Clarke governed with one and a half eyes on his electorate - the first-class counties, especially the smaller ones - and seemed to have little concern for views beyond the parish boundaries. Even his opponents, and there were plenty, admit he was devilishly good at it. "Giles always got the conclusion he wanted and managed to make it seem consensual," said one former county chief executive. "His agenda was all about financial imperatives, keeping the counties alive. He was very clever at making sure he kept at least ten of the 18 onside, and was re-elected twice on that platform. Plus, some people became too scared to vote against him. They feared he wouldn't give them a winter cash-flow loan or an international match."

Almost everything in Clarke's eight-year reign can be traced back to this logic. He recoiled instinctively from the Indian Premier League (because it threatened to steal marquee names away from the start of the home summer), and did his best to smother suggestions that a franchise-based Twenty20 competition might work in England (this would have antagonised the smaller counties). Then, in an attempt to mollify the England players who had missed out on the Indian gold rush, he signed up for the ill-fated Stanford Super Series.

Clarke never fully recovered from the day the Texan fraudster Allen Stanford landed a helicopter at Lord's and unloaded a giant Perspex box of fake cash, though he brazened his way through the ensuing humiliation of Stanford's collapsed Ponzi scheme. But the bad smell of that shocking misjudgment lingered. When England imploded during the 2013-14 Ashes, prompting the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, it felt like a tipping point. The word "toxic" began to attach itself to the ECB.

Yet, while Clarke's chairmanship ended in May 2015, he did not go away. A new position - ECB president - was created so he could continue to patrol the corridors of the International Cricket Council's headquarters in Dubai. And he has always had his supporters among the counties. "In terms of value, income, profitability, he has transformed the ECB," said the former Essex chairman, Nigel Hilliard. "England also went to No. 1 in the world in both Test and limited-overs formats. Over seven years he has faced one problem after another, and not always handled them well. He can be a bull in a china shop. But after the Stanford affair, Rod Bransgrove [the Hampshire chairman] was the only one calling for his demise. Who wants to do the job? It's an unpaid position."

Hilliard is not quite right: Leicestershire chairman Neil Davidson was even more outspoken than Bransgrove. "In any normal organisation," Davidson said, "the chairman's position would be untenable in these circumstances." But then the ECB are not a normal organisation, equipped as they are with a constitution that demands a two-thirds majority for any structural change. Should we be surprised that the dynamism of the early 2000s has slipped back into something more ambiguous.

Since January 1, 1997, the ECB's chairmen have largely been go-getting sharp-eyed business types. Together, they brought a slickness to the presentation of elite cricket, and an expertise at milking it for revenue. Yet a large part of the original intention had been to better the circumstances of local clubs and everyday players. On that front, it is difficult to discern any radical impact. It is true that the finance department can boast a turnover of around £150m - five times what MacLaurin and Lamb inherited in 1997. What, though, has happened to the soul of the game? Where is the connection with the public? Participation levels stood at a record low in the last national survey.

Many would argue that the new body's early promise, so vigorously expressed in that reggae concert at Lord's, has been squandered in the headlong pursuit of cash. Since May 2015, the ECB have reverted to a familiar-looking combination: Colin Graves is a chairman who once ran a major supermarket (Costcutter), and Tom Harrison a chief executive who once played professional cricket. Can this combination of business acumen and sporting experience, not seen since MacLaurin and Lamb, restore some of the lost faith?

The early signals have been encouraging. County chairmen report a more consensual style of government, despite familiar misgivings in late 2015 about ECB proposals to limit the number of county representatives on their executive board to just one. Meanwhile Matt Dwyer - the new director of participation and growth - has launched what reporter David Hopps called the "most coherent, ambitious, self-aware proposals I have seen in more than 30 years covering English cricket," including a greater focus on juniors, and an insistence that matches be played earlier in the day.

Bransgrove is among those who believe the ECB are entering a brave new era - even if the next five years are unlikely to prove as eventful as MacLaurin's tenure. "I read somewhere that every organisation and corporation will start to assume the characteristics of the man at the top," he said. "Kevin Pietersen spoke of a culture of bullying within the England team and perhaps that trickled all the way down. But I feel the game is in a better state now, and I am excited about the new administration. There is a lot of healing to be done."

© John Wisden & Co