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Comment

English cricket desperately needs leaders with a vision for the game

The many disparate parts of the country's game must come together and fight for its place in the modern world

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
16-Apr-2022
Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Paul Collingwood chat during a nets session in Barbados, West Indies vs England, 2nd Test, Barbados, March 14, 2022

Ben Stokes is among the leading contenders for the England captain's role, and Paul Collingwood not a bad shout for that of coach  •  Getty Images

The news about Joe Root made me cringe. He is such a good bloke and one of England's few truly great batters. He gave this chalice all of himself, achieved notable success as England's longest-serving captain, and won hearts.
The overwhelming external view that his number was up would have weighed heavy on a man of rare integrity. He saw leading England as privilege for which he was always grateful, and it is the measure of him that he sees himself continuing in the mission to take the team forward, even with someone else at the helm.
All of this is a pity but probably right. Oddly, his captaincy lacked the smarts of his vice-captaincy. In the days before the buck stopped at his door - when he acted as Alastair Cook's tactical conscience - he was everywhere, a cornucopia of imagination and ideas. But the job wore down his creative strengths: a sacrifice at the altar of practicality if ever there was one. It is worth remembering that he took the Test team through the pandemic, when his team played so much more cricket than any other. He is a humble, hard-working and grounded man, who, of late, has found himself leading a dysfunctional team. Above him has been a power vacuum, beneath him an alarming drop in standards. He will be a hard act to follow. After all, as the song goes "…you don't know what you've got till it's gone".
So, where are we with English cricket?
Clearly, the national men's Test match team needs some work. Apparently Andrew Strauss, the interim managing director of England cricket, is not keen to hang around in the position for longer than the next few weeks. His only exit strategy can be the appointment of Ashley Giles' successor, so the hope is that the applicants possess some of the qualities Strauss himself brought to the job when he first took it seven years ago. The English newspapers suggest Rob Key has it in the bag, as much as anything because of a surprising lack of applicants. Going for the only option is a less good idea than going for the right option. Key knows county cricket like the back of his hand, and his incisive commentary on Sky comes with caring and passion. These are good places to start in the search for the right person; the devil will be in the detail of the spec. Or will he get to write his own script?
Before all that, though, comes the appointment of the new chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Or it should but probably won't. Ideally that new chair would want to have his or her fingerprint on every one of the five pending appointments at the top of the English game. More of that role in a minute.
Within a few months Tom Harrison will have moved on, so there's a chief executive to find soon enough. Word is that the new MD will be seated in time to appoint coaches and captains of the national men's teams for the run into the international summer. The chair is not due to be ratified and announced until May 17, which leaves just a fortnight until the toss with Kane Williamson at Lord's. There is more to do than can possibly be done, so we must assume that a great deal is already happening behind the scenes.
Who are the possible replacements for Root? Ben Stokes, of course, but this past year of his life has not been one to establish the credentials for a complicated, often overwhelming, role. And anyway, he may not be fit enough to start the season. James Vince maybe, but he's not even in the team - which isn't to say that he shouldn't be. Neither is Rory Burns, though the Surrey captain has something appealing in the way he goes about the game. Considering those not in the team, could Moeen Ali be tempted back into the fold of Test match cricket were the captaincy the bait? Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad? Probably not, given they broke ranks in Australia with some punchy comments about those around them. After all, this is the age of the snowflake generation. You can't imagine Fred Trueman or Sir Ian Botham held back in their dressing-room days.
There is not anyone else obviously in the running.
What about the coach of the Test team? It's a no-brainer for this observer. Gary Kirsten is a standout: a man with exactly the strength of character, breadth of personality, depth of knowledge and understated approach needed by the England players at present. He has handled both the Indian and South African teams with a hard mind and the softest gloves, while bringing success and warmth to both. A release clause in his contract with Gujarat Titans would allow him to jump on the plane. That and a big cheque, one imagines.
The white-ball question is no easier. My view is that Eoin Morgan should pack in playing and immediately take over running both teams, but he might not agree! Paul Collingwood is a populist choice and Mahela Jayawardene a fascinating thought. Jayawardene has myriad business interests, a couple of handy franchise positions, is a consultant coach to the Sri Lankan team, and holds a boardroom or advisory position on the Sri Lankan sports commission. That's a lot to give up. More than for Collingwood certainly.
You would think that the boss - the chair - would be in a position to create the perfect axis of appointments, but they will come when they come, by default really, so let's hope they gel. Each of them should sign a charter that ensures the game evolves from the bottom up.
Recreational cricket is key, and projects such as the ECB's Inspiring Generations and the more autonomous Chance to Shine do remarkable work to keep the wheel of development turning. But the pathways are a mess and the best proof of that is the relatively few England players who have come from the state-funded schools system in the last 20 years or so. Equality, diversity and inclusion are not be taken so lightly. Much has been done but clearly, much has not been enough. It is staggering that marginalised communities have missed out on the game in a way that is now so apparent and was previously so hidden. Cricket must, just must, give these communities and their shrinking interest a greater sense of belonging.
The counties are best placed to drive this and can do so much more to become 18 efficient and aspirational academies for the game. This would then free up Loughborough to be the tight, elite finishing school it was supposed to be in the first place. The footprint of 18 counties should remain, that would be sensible, but there is a need for another, small, first-class tier to improve the standard of cricket that feeds into the Test match arena. It is a splendid thing that Darren Stevens still turns it on for Kent at the age of 46. In fact, he is a pillar of the sort of community collective that makes the county game so valuable. But he is of no use to the England team and therein lies the rub. The new chair has a mighty task in bringing the game together and issues such as this are among the most perplexing and challenging.
People in power talk about this being "a critical time", which, among other things, must refer to the painful exposure to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last year, and the ongoing battle of wits between the independent board, the counties, and the other various stakeholders. A corollary of this has been an emphasis on the corporate necessities of process and governance in setting a path for brighter days. A business as big as English cricket (£300 million turnover last year and budgeting for 10% more this year) must be tight and well run, but the points of difference - aspiration, inspiration, collective engagement, clarity of thought, creativity - come from the quality and talents of the people who work in it and who lead it. An orchestra has myriad talents but the conductor brings them together to move the dial. How many great conductors are out there?
Ideally the chair should have a vision for cricket that wholly motivates his or her desire to be in the job. There needs to be something of the moderniser in this person - more passionate reformer than revolutionary activist - whose steady and convincing hand must come with a deep understanding of cricket's place in the history of our country. The game in England is crying out for the sort of innovative, believable and motivational leadership that gives everyone working from within and watching from the outside a spring in their step. We are all tired of reading about what's wrong; there is too much to like for that to have gone on for so long.
Without selling the soul of our game, we need to invest in its growth - women's cricket, first-class cricket, a wider brief for the counties, with specific reference and responsibility to prioritise the pathways for young talent, Chance to Shine, the South Asian Action Plan, the Hundred, and more - but not all of that money can come from television and other media rights. There are different ways, the most exciting of which is private investment, but time is short and the market limited. English cricket has stood still before - think of the early days of T20 cricket - and paid for the tardiness. Now is the time for activation and mobilisation; it is not a time to dither. From here on in, it's about identifying vibrant and intelligent styles of leadership in each of the vacant roles.
The most immediate thing that the many disparate parts of English cricket can do now is come together as a united front and fight for the game's place in the modern world. Every chair, board member, CEO and CFO, marketing guru, executive, coach, captain, player, ground-staff member and development officer needs to play their part. It is too easy to blame the England team and its captain, and it is very difficult to run a national sport from the top down. Cricket is a game that requires love at its core: every last muscle of it.

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