Every time I try to give the ECB the benefit of the doubt, they do something new that leaves me disgusted. I don’t agree with much our administrators do – I loathed their part in the big three ICC coup and have doubts about their new city-based T20 competition – but I usually try to see things from multiple points of view. For example, when they removed live cricket from free to air television I opposed the move but understood the lure of Murdoch’s money. This time, however, I feel nothing but bewilderment. To punish Durham in such a draconian and arbitrary fashion is beyond my comprehension.
I think we all knew the ECB would punish Durham – even though the county’s problems stem from decisions made by the ECB themselves – but I certainly didn’t expect a punishment so severe: automatic relegation, 48 championship points docked, 4 NatWest Blast points docked, 2 Royal London Cup points docked, plus their ability to stage test matches stripped. It’s goes beyond harsh. It’s almost vindictive.
I understand that the ECB wants to draw a line in the sand, make an example of Durham, and show other counties that financial problems won’t be tolerated, but the punishment shows a complete lack of empathy. It also represents a total refusal to acknowledge the broader context of Durham’s problems. As a result the board have come across as intransigent, arrogant, and just plain mean.
What’s particularly galling is that the ECB have tried to present themselves as Durham’s shining white knight – the benevolent saviours who have saved the county from oblivion by bailing them out to the tune of £3.8 million. This is incredibly disingenuous. Let’s just get one thing straight here. Durham are in trouble because (a) they were forced to build an international class stadium as a condition of being awarded first class status back in 1992, and (b) they’ve been forced to bid for test matches that have subsequently made big losses. How much has all this cost the county over the years? I’d wager it’s quite a lot more than £3.7 million. It’s the ECB’s ridiculous bidding system for international matches (it can cost over £2 million to buy staging rights for a one off test) that’s at fault here. There’s no suggestion whatsoever that Durham have run into difficulties due to financial mismanagement.
Some might argue that Durham deserve relegation, because the ECB’s financial support gave them an unfair advantage over Hampshire and Notts. I simply cannot agree with this assessment. It’s not like Durham have a Manchester City style wage bill. Three years ago Durham were forced to halve (yes halve!) their wage bill to cut their cloth accordingly. The fact they’ve still managed to compete in division one, and produced the likes of Ben Stokes and Mark Wood in the process, despite having less money than their rivals, is highly admirable. They’ve been the poor relations (in a literal sense) of division one for a while. If anything they’ve been at a competitive disadvantage.
What many people don’t realise is that Durham aren’t the only county who have amassed big debts. For example, did you know that Yorkshire’s debts are four times as big? Colin Graves seems to have forgotten this. What’s more, Warwickshire borrowed £20 million from the local council a couple of years ago but have already had to restructure their repayment plan. Durham’s big mistake, it seems, is that they owed money to the ECB – a consequence of being unable to pay their staging fee for the test against Sri Lanka in May. If you thought the ECB might be a sympathetic lender, think again folks.
Durham should also feel aggrieved because their punishment is so disproportionate compared to similar offences in the past. When Glamorgan were unable to pay their £2 million staging fee for the Sri Lanka test in 2011, the ECB (then led by David Collier) took a far more sympathetic view. They recognised that Glamorgan’s problems stemmed in part from all the work they’d done on their stadium, so they were simply stripped of the rights to stage a test against the Windies the following summer. Why were Glamorgan treated leniently yet Durham absolutely hammered? The situations aren’t exactly the same, of course, and Glamorgan didn’t require a £3.7 million bailout, but it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow.
The main beneficiaries of Durham’s relegation, of course, are Hampshire. A cynic might believe that their high-profile chairman, Rod Bransgrove, has been campaigning for this outcome for a while. He even released a statement on the Hampshire website praising the new city-based T20 competition – a move which surely would have endeared him to Harrison and Graves. After years of rattling the ECB’s cage whenever he thought Hampshire had been treated unfairly, fans up north might think that Rod has finally learned how to play politics.
It’s interesting, of course, that Hampshire rather than Kent are the county who will play division one cricket next season. As the team that finished second in division two, Kent would have been promoted any other year. However, they missed out due to the ECB’s plan to reduce division one to eight teams (another controversial decision) with two teams being relegated and only one promoted. Kent fans might argue with some justification that Hampshire were found wanting in division one this year and deserved to be relegated. Kent, on the other hand, deserved an opportunity to see if they could be more competitive than a Hants team that won just two games out sixteen. I wonder what they made of this outcome, and Bransgrove’s posturing, down at Canterbury?
Today is a sad, sad day for English cricket. A county have been relegated, deducted points in three competitions, and prevented from staging future test matches, because they’ve been operating in a world that the ECB, through a series of short-sighted decisions, have created. It’s not Durham’s fault that the ECB made them build an expensive stadium in a distant northern realm; it’s not Durham’s fault that they’ve had to bid millions to stage matches that were always likely to make a loss; neither is it Durham’s fault that county cricket has been declining for many years – something caused, at least in part, by the ECB’s decision to remove all live cricket from terrestrial TV.
It’s also a sad, sad day for Durham’s players, who performed relatively well this year. They won five championship games (three more than Hants) yet they’ll be forced to play division two cricket next year. Their jobs might be at risk too. Did the ECB even consider the impact on Durham’s staff? If they did, they obviously thought they were less important than punishing a county for the strategic mistakes the board themselves have made.
Sometimes I just don’t understand the mindset of those who govern English cricket. They seem as aloof, out-of-step and dispassionate as ever. When trying to come to terms with today’s events, I wondered whether the ECB handed out such a severe penalty because they wanted to give the impression that Durham were the sole architects of their own downfall – thus distracting the masses from the broader context of the county’s plight. If this is true, I hope they’re sorely mistaken.
Cricket followers are a canny lot. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years it’s never to trust the ECB, and certainly never to trust their judgement. Durham’s relegation seems like another almighty miscalculation to me. What do you think?
* Update. According to The Independent, private investors tried to take over Durham earlier this year (a move which would’ve cleared many of their debts) but the ECB encouraged the county to reject this bid and accept their own bailout instead. Apparently Durham understood this might mean sanctions from the ECB, but I’m sure they didn’t expect the punishment to be so severe. Durham are furious behind the scenes. Many suspect the ECB are doing this to frighten other counties into accepting their city-based T20 competition (which will open a new revenue stream). The plot thickens.
** Further update. The Kent chairman, George Kennedy, is considering his position following the ECB’s decision to keep Hants in division one. He says he’s losing confidence in the ECB and therefore his job is becoming increasingly difficult. Apparently he found out that Kent wouldn’t be promoted through a journalist, rather than the ECB itself. Incredible.