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Sports Minister warns ECB of government intervention as pressure mounts on Tom Harrison

Government may take "nuclear option" of independent regulator if game doesn't "get house in order"

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Nigel Huddleston, the UK sports minister, has warned the ECB that the government may be moved to take the "nuclear option" of appointing an independent regulator, unless urgent progress is made to confront the issue of institutional racism in cricket.
Speaking to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Thursday, Huddlestone told fellow MPs that the government was "impatient" for cricket to "put its house in order" and confront the issues raised in Azeem Rafiq's testimony to the same panel on Tuesday.
"Cricket in the UK is not nationalised, we don't have direct control [over the sport]," Huddlestone told the committee. "But if they don't get their act together, then we have the nuclear option of legislating in order to bring in potentially an independent regulator. That is probably the route that, if we absolutely had to, we could go down."
Huddlestone's comments pile further pressure on Tom Harrison, the ECB's embattled chief executive, who endured an uncomfortable session before Parliament on Tuesday, and is expected to face an equally tough grilling on Friday, with a game-wide meeting due to take place at The Oval to address the implications of the crisis.
Harrison's discomfort at the DCMS hearing centred around the ECB's dual role as cricket's governing body and regulator - in particular its decision to allow Yorkshire to run, and then suppress, their own investigation into Rafiq's claims. It was a state of affairs which Julie Elliott MP, a member of the DCMS panel, said was "a system open to abuse".
Harrison's performance has been described by one senior county administrator as "a train-wreck", and with all 41 of the ECB's members - including the 18 first-class counties, the MCC and the national counties - due to attend Friday's meeting, it's conceivable that Harrison could yet face the same fate as the board's former chairman, Ian Watmore, who was forced to resign last month in the wake of England's controversial abandonment of their proposed tour of Pakistan.
Harrison, who has been chief executive since 2015, was instrumental in securing the ECB's £1.1 billion rights deal with Sky and the BBC, which runs from 2020-2024. However, his relationship with the counties was soured by the manner in which the Hundred was driven through the game, and though the ECB was credited for its initial handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the decision to award a £2.1million bonus pot to Harrison and other senior executives remains a deeply divisive issue, especially given the sport's multi-million pound losses in the last financial year, and the extensive redundancies that followed.
Those financial issues could yet be deepened by government intervention, with Huddlestone warning that cricket's funding through Sport England - worth approximately £2.5 million a year to the grassroots game - could also come under review.
"I have had extensive conversations with the secretary of state, Nadine Dorries," Huddlestone said, "and she has been very clear to me that if we don't see sufficient action being taken, then we as a government will intervene.
"There is financial flow through Sport England, in some cases UK Sport, into cricket. Interestingly, most of that money is going into the various initiatives which we all applaud, about equality, diversity and inclusion. So for people saying we need to pull all the funding from cricket, we've got to be very careful about that. But we also need to be very conscious about how we are using taxpayers' money in cricket, and make sure it's doing the right things."
"We've had very frank conversations with ECB and others involved in cricket over the last couple of weeks," Huddlestone told the House of Commons earlier on Tuesday. "I have had reassurance that they take the issue seriously and will act.
"Tom Harrison has promised me that with every fibre of his being he will take action here. We will judge them on their deeds and not their words, and if they fail to act appropriately we will not hesitate to intervene further."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket