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Essays

The ECB face the politicians

Enough to make the silver blush

John Crace
01-Jan-2021
Tom Harrison, the ECB's CEO

Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive  •  Getty Images

It's come to something when the two most eloquent performers are inanimate. Yet not even being flanked by the pomp and circumstance of the men's and women's World Cup trophies could save Colin Graves and Tom Harrison from two excruciating hours in October before the select committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Any hopes the chairman and chief executive of the ECB might have had of the silverware providing diplomatic immunity were disabused within ten minutes. After a few niceties, during which Harrison enthused it was a "very exciting time for cricket", committee chair Damian Collins (Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe) got down to business. Why, he wondered, was 2005 - one of English cricket's anni mirabiles - not its breakthrough year? Could it possibly have had something to do with that being the last summer the sport was broadcast free to air?
Neither Graves nor Harrison could quite believe what they were hearing. That was a ludicrous suggestion. Sky money had done nothing but wonders for cricket. Stadium upgrades and increased salaries all round for players and administrators at the top of the game. Everything was being done to protect cricket's growth.
"That's odd," said Ian C. Lucas (Labour, Wrexham). "Grass-roots participation has fallen by almost 50%." Harrison shook his head sadly. That was just one of those things. An outlier. Sometimes you had to take one step backward to take two forward. Just look at the two trophies. (The trophies blushed a little.)
Everything the ECB had been doing since 2005 had been about making England world champions. It had been a brilliant and cunning strategy: the team had deliberately been useless in previous World Cups, just so they could power home after a super over at Lord's. But now was the time to let bygones be bygones.
After a lot of protests from ordinary fans, the 2019 World Cup final had been shown on Channel 4 - though Harrison could not conceal a hint of regret that it had escaped Sky's exclusive clutches - and cricket was now coming back to free-to-air TV. From 2020, the BBC would be broadcasting live coverage of a couple of men's and women's Twenty20 internationals, and some games from the new format, The Hundred.
At the mention of this, Harrison began to purr. The most exciting development in modern cricket for more than a decade, with city franchises - whoops, teams, definitely teams! - playing matches of ten ten-ball overs. The committee were rather more sceptical. Weren't the current T20,
50-over and Test formats all fit for purpose? Why bother to change something that wasn't broken?
Here the proceedings grew steadily trickier for the ECB's two top bods, their answers more evasive and brusque. The board had done considerable research on The Hundred, and could prove both that it was necessary and would be a sure-fire success. Would they care to share this research, the committee wondered, and estimate how much it had cost? No, they would not. The research was all theirs, and so overwhelmingly positive it could not be published.
Had the politicians been better prepared, things could have got even more awkward for Graves and Harrison. As it was, they were lucky to escape questioning on the counties' scepticism over the competition's viability, or on the £1.3m payout each received to get them on board. Even so, the two men had to endure another hour of slow torture.
Harrison all but admitted that the ECB's main motivation for the new tournament was that they had failed to capitalise on the introduction of T20, and were taking an expensive punt - The Hundred stands to lose about £20m in its first year - on a brand-new format that may or may not take off globally. He also tried to make out that the ECB had been fighting off major sponsors, and had chosen Butterkist popcorn and Pom-Bear crisps only to appear down with the kids. The committee were unconvinced, observing that junk-food brands didn't exactly promote cricket as a healthy lifestyle, and suspecting the sole reason they had been selected was because they had made the best - and only - offers.
There were similar prevarications and evasions over logistics. How did the ECB square wanting to increase exposure to the game with restricting the men's matches to seven major cities? They didn't.
"OK," said Clive Efford (Labour, Eltham). "How do you see The Hundred developing? What would a successful outcome look like?" "We want to be on 'The One Show' and CBeebies," Harrison replied cheerfully. That may not be every cricket lover's benchmark of success. But each to their own. Maybe he and Graves can return in a year's time to update the select committee on the progress of The Hundred. And maybe the committee will give them an even tougher ride.

John Crace is the political sketchwriter for The Guardian