Remember the term ‘fortress Edgbaston’? Well, the best way to undermine a stronghold is to chip away at its foundations until the whole thing collapses. Billy Crawford gets to the root of the problem …
Cast your mind back 16 years to September 13th, 2005. Thousands upon thousands of people lined Oxford Street and crammed into Trafalgar Square to greet the England cricket team. Such was the clamour for the national summer game that 20,000 people had been turned away from Old Trafford for the last day of the 3rd Test and record numbers of viewers tuned in to watch on Channel 4.
English cricket was on top of the world, the centre of the national consciousness.
Since that day, however, the ECB has set about the systematic destruction of cricket in this country. If that feels too strong a statement, then let us take a look at the evidence.
The last day of that Ashes series at The Oval was the final time that the England team played a home Test on free-to-air TV. Since that beautiful moment when Michael Vaughan lifted the urn on a warm September evening the national team has never been available for the whole nation to watch.
While it is true that the deal to sell the television rights to Sky was agreed at the end of the previous summer, the ECB could have easily anticipated the bounce in interest that was coming. At the moment the deal was signed England had just won 7 home Test matches in one summer. The national football team had just failed at another major tournament, Euro 2004 and the ECB’s new invention, the Twenty20 Cup, was proving a roaring success.
However, rather than see this as the beginning of English cricket reclaiming its place as our national summer sport and perhaps reaching heights of public interest not seen since the 1950’s, the ECB decided this was the best moment to place all home cricket behind a paywall. It was a staggeringly bad decision and it was motivated by the one thing the ECB is always motivated by, acquiring more money.
The ECB followed this decision by massively hiking ticket prices for home Test matches, to cash in further on the team’s popularity. A vast swath of cricket’s potential viewers were instantly priced out of attending or viewing the game. As a teenage boy growing up in a low income family, myself and my mother had always attended one Test match every summer. After 2004 we did not go together for another 11 years.
These short-sighted decisions, as well as a shocking lack of engagement with state schools, have led to English cricket becoming a sport for the elite. Of the 11 that won back the Ashes at The Oval in 2005, 8 were products of state schools. Last summer, against Pakistan at Southampton, England fielded an XI with only two state educated players.
When the ECB discuss inclusion and diversity in English cricket it is worth remembering these facts.
The chance to inspire the next generation through a successful England team would also be missed. Sadly, Andrew Strauss’ side, the first England team to ascend to number one in the world rankings, were never available to watch for the majority of the population.
Following the disintegration of this team, the ECB then set about, whether by accident or agenda, to do everything possible to make the England Test side less successful. 4-day cricket, the nursery for future Test players, was marginalised to the Spring and Autumn of the season to fit in yet more and more of the short form of the game.
This, as anyone who watches the Test side can see, has led to cricketers being picked for England who simply do not have the technique to survive in Test cricket. Jonny Bairstow, for instance, does not have a defensive game capable of dealing with the swinging ball. Dominic Sibley may be a successful player but he has one of the worst techniques of any opener England have selected.
4-day cricket has also been marginalised for spectators. The ECB regularly schedules Championship games during the week and outside of the school holidays, making it almost impossible for working aged people and young families to attend. It is hard to imagine this is accidental. We are incessantly told that prioritisation of short form cricket is needful because people are simply not interested in the County Championship anymore. However, this is a self- fulfilling prophesy. By pushing the long form game to the margins and making it unappealing and impractical to watch they have created a fall in spectatorship and viewership. It is then easy to claim that the Championship is in decline whilst obscuring the reasons for that decline.
By doing this, the ECB have created the rationale for their worst invention of all, The Hundred. I will not waste the reader’s time listing all that is wrong about this competition. If you have read this far then I will likely be preaching to the converted. All that is worth saying is that the ECB have underestimated quite how much they have alienated their core supporter base. The strength of feeling among fans of the game is something that the ECB clearly does not grasp. We have been treated with utter disdain by the very people who we trust to keep our game safe. The press releases and the quotes from the ECB and their minions that made it clear we are of no interest to them will not be easily forgotten. The comparison with football’s European Super League is very apt. We are cricket’s legacy fans and we are prepared to hold the ECB to account.
The situation that we find ourselves in is primarily down to the catastrophic mismanagement and staggering hubris of Colin Graves, the ECB’s former chairman and Tom Harrison, its current CEO. Between them they have achieved the destruction of English cricket with the same effectiveness that Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath once destroyed English batting.
They have squandered the ECB’s cash reserves on the hated Hundred with the enthusiasm and recklessness of a compulsive gambler at a Las Vegas casino.
While Graves is now gone, replaced by the thankfully more level headed Ian Watmore, Harrison sadly remains.
Recently he has overseen the disastrous rotation policy that destroyed England’s chances of a memorable series win in India. Let us be crystal clear about this, rotation was never primarily about protecting players mental health in a Covid bubble, it was about genuflecting to the IPL and the power of the BCCI. Players were openly rested from a crucial Test series for their country so that they would be fit and fresh to take part in a full 8-week IPL. Queen and country became subject to Kolkata Knight Riders.
Harrison’s pre-pandemic rumoured salary of £800,000 a year also sticks in the throat for supporters of counties for whom that amount of money could mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. Each county only receives £1.3 million a year from the ECB out of the current TV broadcast deal and this is barely enough for them to survive.
All of this is before we even begin discussing Harrison’s staggering mismanagement of the Ollie Robinson Twitter fiasco. By announcing a “zero tolerance policy” on any form of online misdemeanour, with no clarification of what that might constitute, Harrison opened up English cricket to the Pandora’s box of the easily offended. The Twitterati scoured the internet for anything that anyone in the game might ever have said that would be unacceptable in the modern age. Wisden even stooped to the depths of mining tweets made by players when they were still legally children. It is hard to believe that this witch hunt did not contribute to England’s pitiful performance against New Zealand at Edgbaston this week.
No support appears to have been offered for Robinson’s wellbeing either. Whatever one thinks of his teenage indiscretions, there has to be some level of support offered for the mental health of a young man thrown to the wolves by his employers. Protecting fragile people in the eye of a media storm is a lesson that our nation was meant to have learnt from recent events. Tom Harrison obviously has not heard of the phrase “be kind”.
The ECB are on dangerous ground with those of us that love cricket. It is worth remembering that in the same way that the “big 6” Premier League clubs may well have lost many of their fans for good if they had followed through with their ESL plans, the ECB may find that the loyalty of cricket’s public is not unwavering.
If they continue to marginalise the forms of the game that we love, treat fans with distain and contribute to weaker and weaker England teams then many of us will simply stop supporting.
We will still follow our counties and it is hard to believe we can ever truly turn our back on the England team. However, once true supporters become alienated it is hard to win them back and eventually this will hurt the ECB in the only area that they genuinely care about, their finances.
By the time they realise this it may already be too late. Change is needed now.