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England have found three good men; they need another two

Stokes, McCullum and Key form an enviable brains trust. Now to team them with a CEO and chair who understand the soul of the game and can unite its disparate forces

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
19-May-2022
Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, speaks to Sky TV after the match was called off due to a Covid outbreak in the Indian squad, England vs India, fifth Test, day one, Old Trafford, September 10, 2021

Tom Harrison has done plenty of good for England cricket; it is his misfortune he will be remembered for the recent turmoil in the game  •  PA Images via Getty Images

So now it is Tom Harrison's turn to say goodbye. It has been quite an exodus of late - Ian Watmore, the most recent chair, though he's been gone a while; Ashley Giles; Chris Silverwood; Graham Thorpe (to whom we send good wishes for his battle against illness); Joe Root, Barry O'Brien, the interim chair - a cull in some of these cases, sheer exhaustion in others.
Harrison has been chief executive of the ECB since 2014. He is a good man, a cricketing man to his core. He has suffered some bad press from the Hundred, which was very much his baby and around which the predators continue to gather, and from the fallout of the DCMS inquiry into the accusations of institutional racism that haunts the game. The ghastly television pictures of English cricket's CEO hung out to dry in front of a parliamentary inquisition are not easily forgotten.
There are those who would have liked to see some Test cricket back on free-to-air television, but the practicalities are more complicated than they might appear. At the time, the £1.1 billion deal with Sky and the BBC was seen as a triumph, even by those who conveniently forgot that the Hundred had provided key collateral with the broadcasters.
Harrison has done many good things for English cricket. The game lives in his soul and the role he played in saving the Covid years from disaster is remarkable. The staging of the England men's full summer of cricket behind closed doors and in a biosecure environment across consecutive seasons was award-winning stuff, or should have been. Both the men's and women's teams won the World Cup under his watch - the advance of the women's game is surely his greatest joy - but the longer formats of the game lost ground. Whether the CEO can be blamed for that is a moot point. "I have put everything into this role," he said earlier this week. Not half. But now, Tom's tank is empty.
It is worth dwelling on the Hundred for a moment. It works, the crowds and viewing figures prove that. The critics who hate it - and they really hate it - argue that with proper marketing the T20 Blast could have achieved the same widespread interest. But, as if to prove that you can't fool all the people all the time, the crowds kept coming back for the Hundred because the teams and the cricket felt fresh; most matches had an edge, merchandise sold out, and as much as one can understand from the dark world of ratings, we are told that the television audiences grew encouragingly throughout the tournament. Yes, the ECB should market its other formats with more vigour, but the Hundred grabbed the people and didn't let go. The format was a winner, on the back of a simple premise: bring the best players together to play in fewer teams with a short, sharp narrative at their disposal and the game of bat and ball will yet again prove its genius.
Of course there was another storyline behind the creation of this 100-ball-a-side game that takes just 2.5 hours to play and demands the players don't dither; where the scoreboard cracks along, the bowlers have their wits about them, and the supporters can navigate home safe before the turning of day into night.
Ownership. The, ECB wanted to own something. Why? So it could be sold. To whom? Private investment. Why? Because English cricket needs more money and cannot ongoingly rely on bumper media-rights deals.
Not more money, surely? Yes, and for plenty of good reasons but primarily because nowhere near enough children play the game. Chance to Shine raises £5.8 million a year to bring cricket to 25% of the schools in England and Scotland and to many challenged urban communities. Scale that up and you begin to make a massive difference. Inspiring Generations, launched by Harrison in 2019, builds on the strong foundations laid by the board's strategic framework, Cricket Unleashed, to ensure the next generation can say "cricket is a game for me". And still, the majority of the next generation are not yet in thrall.
Incredibly, the ECB's annual revenue increased three-fold during Harrison's time at the helm but still the surface has only been scratched. With the fruits of private investment into each of the franchised teams - all of which are currently owned by the ECB - the game will have the wings to fly, and Harrison knows that better than anyone. Thus, the Hundred. If this sounds iffy, witness India since the IPL commanded such attention. From the IPL, and specifically its commercial model, comes the starburst of young cricketers of which India is justifiably proud.
One day Harrison will be seen for what he has been: an innovative and committed mind aboard an old ship that refuses to change direction. Right now the seas upon which that ship sails are storm-ridden and he has little stomach or energy left for such travel. He is right to stand aside for there are wounds to heal; Harrison himself said recently that "the men's cricket department is not fit for purpose". The game has not felt so divided since the late 1970s, when Kerry Packer invaded for commercial reasons of his own.
It is lazy and not always accurate to blame money and commerce for cricket's problems. In general, commercial ambition has allowed cricket a space in today's fast-changing world. The exponential effect of that was grasped by Harrison before long-established strongholds of the game in England were ready to believe it.
Such melancholic introspection usually falls upon us after defeat in Australia. Add defeat by India twice last year and panic takes over. All hail, then, those who have made three excellent appointments in the senior positions that were opened up by the exodus highlighted above. It was Harrison and Andrew Strauss who said to Rob Key something like, "Do you want the easy life in the commentary box or to roll your sleeves up for some skin in the game?" Key made the best choice, which is one reason why he is the right choice.
Then Key went to Ben Stokes to ask how he was doing - like, really doing; after, it is rumoured, Stokes called him to say he was ready to captain England. Right now Stokes is a perfect fit. At Worcester, in front of a sprinkling of spectators but in the eye of the world, he made his return to first-class cricket in the shires. Fireworks ensued. He made 161 in 88 balls with 17 sixes, an innings that included 34 runs off one over. He's ready all right, and chose to prove as much in the way he knows best.
There has been a tendency to look for obstacles to Stokes' promotion - volatility and mental health foremost among them - but this is a man who has seen the other side and didn't like it much, a man of deed not word. Stokes is a cricketer's cricketer with a larrikin spirit, yes, but a disciplined mind formed by the lessons of the past. No player of this game is fitter, stronger or more likely to repel the opposition with the power of his personality. No player is more likely to respond to such challenges as the World Cup final in 2019 and the Ashes match at Headingley that followed shortly after. That player is the one Key went in search of, and found.
As for Brendon McCullum, well, that was a magic trick so brilliantly conceived and executed that Messrs Harrison, Key and Strauss might have been surprised by it themselves. McCullum has no history of coaching long-form/red-ball cricket, none. Therefore no baggage - perfect! He played all forms of the game with a sense of adventure but never without reference to the core principles. He led with generosity, acknowledging friend and foe alike, while admiring effort every bit as much as he did skill. He smiles about cricket, doesn't sweat the small stuff and encourages players "to do their thing". Yes, he is acknowledged as a white-ball monster but he once made 302 in a Test match, so he doesn't mind the idea of it. In fact, he played 101 Test matches, made 6453 runs at 38.6 per innings and took 198 catches as well as pulling off 11 stumpings with the gauntlets on. He's a five-day man all right, if not necessarily from the bosom of a Boycott philosophy.
For all that, here is the McCullum story. New Zealand were playing Pakistan in Sharjah when news of Philip Hughes' death after being hit by a bouncer came through.
"It felt like he was one of us," McCullum said. "There was this horrible feeling that it could have been any of us. We didn't want to continue but we knew we had to." So they decided to take the emotion out of their cricket, to play for the game's sake, not their own. "What you saw was a team playing without feeling or meaning. I had always wanted us to intimidate but not at the expense of someone's life."
New Zealand did not bowl another bouncer in the game; McCullum positioned no fielders in front of the bat near the batters, they cut out all verbals and muted the celebrations when taking wickets. And they won the Test. McCullum made 202, barely reacting to any landmark during the innings.
It was distraction-free cricket. "What we learnt was that when you play without pressure and expectation, your skills can be properly expressed." In the week that followed, senior players concluded that New Zealand hadn't formed their own cricketing identity. "Most of it emanated from being semi-embarrassed by the way we had played in the past. It had to be authentic, and it may not have lasted but I wanted us to play instinctively and without fear of failure," McCullum observed at the time. He said there would be no judgement and no consequence of failure. "You can't force it down people's throats but this is the way I wanted our team to play and I know the senior guys had the same feeling."
For the many who haven't yet grasped the spirit of cricket, it's right there. McCullum is exactly the man for England, as are Stokes and Key. Now for a CEO and a chair. The right people are crucial, cricket people who understand the soul of the game and can unite its disparate forces. If the appointments are as good as the gang of three now slipping into their new shoes, the game in this country will move forward with clear thinking about right and wrong, a smile on its face, an example to the young and the chance to shine.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator