When faultlines are too exposed, there's no easy way to rebuild after an earthquake

As racism scandal rocks English cricket, Harrison knows importance of seizing what remains of the moment

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
There was a moment of levity on Friday, in the midst of an otherwise sombre unveiling of the ECB's new anti-racism action plan, when one senior journalist - caught on the hop by an announcement that had first been anticipated on Wednesday but had already been delayed by yet another hour - burst into the media Zoom call five minutes after its start, and interrupted Tom Harrison's monologue with a loud and exasperated oath.
As an instant reaction to a long-drawn-out and deeply embarrassing episode for English cricket, the outburst had some merit. It would not, however, prove to be the mot juste of Harrison's address. That would be his use of the word "earthquake" to describe the shock of Azeem Rafiq's revelations and subsequent fall-out for the game - a word so pointed that he uttered it three times, as if to ensure that every headline on the subject would be obliged to lead on his impassioned response to the crisis.
As soundbites go, it certainly made a change from Harrison's stuttering, management-speak display at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) hearing in Westminster last week, at which he had been slapped down from the outset with the chair Julian Knight's refusal to allow him to read a statement to open the ECB's defence, and was never able to recover his poise thereafter, as barb upon barb flew in about the governing body's inability to "get its house in order".
As any amateur seismologist would tell you, "earthquake" is probably an uncannily accurate depiction of how this saga has unfolded for the ECB - first, a grindingly slow build-up of pressure over aeons of apparent inactivity, then a shattering denouement as two irreconcilable bodies rip and twist against one another, causing untold destruction. More troublingly for the body politic, it might also be pointed out that earthquakes tend to re-occur along existing faultlines.
"An earthquake can provide the opportunity to accelerate years and years of change in a very quick period of time"
Tom Harrison
So here it is, the ECB's attempt to provide the sport with sufficiently robust architecture to "Build Back Better" in the short term (not that the post-Brexit lingo of the Conservative Party is necessarily the ideal point of reference for this journey), and to cope with whatever ructions may be thrown up in the future. It is a 12-point plan, sub-divided into five distinct sections, to address the structural flaws within the English game, and point the way to a more genuinely inclusive future for the estimated 11 million cricket fans in this country, too many of whom have felt excluded.
If the initial reaction to the plan has been perhaps a touch underwhelming, then that's largely a reflection of the ennui that can creep in whenever the ECB's lumbering machine attempts to grind its corporate gears and spit out something that goes beyond mere platitudes.
And sure enough, when compared to the draft document that emerged from last week's all-stakeholder's meeting at the Kia Oval, the proposals in the final product are notable for a fair bit of sandpapering around their roughest edges - perhaps most tellingly, in the ambitious commitment to having 30 percent boardroom representation by women and representative ethnicities by April 2022.
Even before that commitment was in the post, the challenge got steeper still with the resignation of Leicestershire's chair, Mehmooda Duke, who had previously ticked both of those boxes, but whose parting call for "fresh leadership at national level" didn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the proposals she had been party to crafting.
As such, there is a rather ambiguous caveat within that particular proposal, calling for counties to "comply or explain" why they are unable to fulfil the quota within the agreed time. Such are the reasons why an ECB spokesperson had said on Thursday that they "weren't quite there" with the final wording of the document. When you consider the overwhelmingly white, male make-up of boardrooms across the 18 first-class and 20 national counties, this process may not be so much a case of turkeys voting for Christmas, but dinosaurs bracing for the meteor.
Either way, the cataclysm has now been thrust upon the ECB, and Harrison knows it is incumbent upon his regime to seize what remains of the moment.
"An earthquake can provide the opportunity to accelerate years and years of change in a very quick period of time," Harrison said. "It highlights a situation that doesn't change through cajoling or through contracts, or through moving people through education processes. Perhaps this is the shock that is going to enable us to bring this game together once and for all. And I don't mean that as the game as we see it now, but the game which has got 11 million fans taking part and who want to be part of it."
In spite of his tendency towards white-collar obfuscation, it does bear repetition that Harrison has tried to do the right thing on the diversity and inclusion front, ever since his arrival at the ECB in 2015. He stepped in personally to address Rafiq's concerns last summer, after reading about his experiences at Yorkshire on ESPNcricinfo, and he was similarly proactive in the board's initial response to the Black Lives Matter movement, even if England's subsequent failure to take a knee before all internationals drew further accusations of tokenism, most notably from the then-Sky Sports commentator, Michael Holding.
There was the launch, in 2018, of the South Asian Action Plan - the first concerted bid to build bridges to a community that provides between 30 and 40 percent of all recreational players in the UK. The aims of that initiative have come under fire in recent weeks, not least since Rafiq pointed out in the DCMS hearing that those levels of Asian participation have dropped by the same percentage since 2010. But in highlighting a rise from 7 percent to 28 percent in the past four years for ethnic minority enrolment in ECB academies, Harrison insisted that the fruits of that investment were slowly becoming apparent.
Even so, the commitment within the ECB's action plan to "remove barriers in talent pathways" was perhaps the most significant of its five key proposals, because for all the justifiable focus at boardroom level, it is at this vital choke-point between the grass-roots and the professional game that so many of the sport's problems lie.
A number of factors have long been at play here. The tendency of youth-team coaches towards conformity, both in terms of techniques (many of which have often been honed at extra expense, either through the private-school system or one-to-one lessons); the lack of feedback to talented players from marginalised backgrounds, who are unable to make the most of their one shot at a county trial. The sheer cost of a sport in which helmets, for instance, are now mandatory across all age-group levels.
"That decision-making point between talented youngsters and becoming professionals around the country is a worrying statistic for us," Harrison said. "There may be structural and cultural barriers in place that we need to remove. We just need to accelerate the work that's going on here, but I don't think we have all the answers yet."
In the course of his defence of the ECB's progress, however, it was telling that Harrison choose not to address perhaps the most notable aspect of their commitment to doing things differently - the launch of the Hundred, a competition that has been perhaps the central plank of his seven-year tenure as chief executive.
Harrison had hinted at the Hundred's existence during the DCMS hearings, when he spoke of how the ECB had struggled to get "the first-class game to wake up" to the need to put EDI initiatives at the front and centre of its offerings.
But it's a sign perhaps of how desperately the board now wants to limit the contagion from the Yorkshire saga, that an issue that had been shoved down every cricket-loving throat for the past three years is now stuffed very much up the executives' sleeves, perhaps stored away for a brighter, post-fall-out future - far removed from the rubble that cricket's earthquake has strewn across the county game - when the prominence of the women's tournament, the move towards family-friendly, non-alcohol-fuelled events, and the drive towards greater diversity in ticket sales can once again be trumpeted as successes.
Either way, given that the executive patted itself on the back to the tune of £2.1 million in bonuses following the Hundred's launch last summer (Harrison bluntly dismissed that pay-out as an "employment contract" matter when asked to reconsider it on Friday), it would be a remarkable failure of imagination were they not at some stage to embark on some hasty retro-fitting, and present that tournament as the elusive "silver bullet" that Harrison himself admitted the action plan was not.
For despite all the best intentions of this action plan, English cricket as we know it is painfully exposed by the revelations of the past month, and damaged by the broad-brush facts that the DCMS hearings placed in the public domain. There's little room for nuance when politicians on both sides of the House are railing against historic failures and calling, as Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, did on Friday, for a public enquiry. Sometimes, when the faultlines are too exposed, there's no easy way to rebuild after an earthquake.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket