I really wanted to go in person. I even toyed with the idea of turning up in full cricket kit or a cookie monster costume. But I hurt my foot on Tuesday so had to make do with the live stream on the parliament website. It was a fascinating three and a half hours as the DCMS committee grilled Colin Graves and Tom Harrison about their (mis)management of English cricket and their controversial new Hundred tournament.
Although it could’ve been a lot worse for the ECB had the Department of Culture Media and Sport committee known a little more about the game (at least that was my impression), Harrison and Graves still endured an uncomfortable afternoon. It’s just a shame that some members of the committee didn’t (or couldn’t) pull up the ECB head honchos for making a number of evasive or disingenuous comments to worm their way out of awkward questions. Therefore the opportunity to really skewer them – the knock out blow if you like – was missed.
Having said that a number of painful jabs definitely landed. The DCMS committee, which was chaired my MCC member and passionate cricket fan Damian Collins, were very critical of the ECB’s decision to hide live cricket behind a paywall back in 2005. With falling participation a major concern, the committee asked Graves and Harrison ‘how many Ben Stokes have we lost?’ during this time. However, Harrison refused to blame the paywall that restricts cricket’s potential audience so badly, and instead tried to claim it was a “complex issue”. The result was sniggering at the back and embarrassment for the CEO.
At this point the ECB were keen to argue that Sky’s money had led to great success. The ECB had brought along both the men’s and women’s World Cup trophies with them – shame they couldn’t bring the Ashes or Wisden Trophy – in the hope this would mitigate some of the criticism. However, it was extremely hard to swallow this claim. The decision to take Sky’s cash came fourteen years ago. The England men’s team have performed diabolically in World Cups for most of this period.
Although the issue of terrestrial television raised its head again in the second half of the session when the ECB departed, and former Somerset chairman Andy Nash and Becky Fairlie-Clarke from the Cricket Supporters Association made an appearance, this particular exchange ended with the committee somewhat admonishing Graves and Harrison with the warning “don’t do this again”. I doubt Graves would’ve taken being talked to like a naughty schoolboy particularly well.
The main event of the afternoon was the debate concerning Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit. And once again the bankruptcy of the concept was laid bare. When quizzed about its potential drawbacks the ECB representatives were evasive, disingenuous, and kept falling back on this ‘research’ we’ve heard so much about. You know, the research they continually refuse to publish. I wonder why that might be?
What irritated me as a supporter is that Graves and Harrison kept making statements which just didn’t add up (or statements which seemed to be demonstrably false) without being called out for it. Exhibit one was Graves’s rather cynical argument that the ECB would never have got live cricket back on terrestrial television without The Hundred. This simply isn’t true. The BBC signed up to show the new franchise tournament when they thought it was going to be a T20.
Graves also tried to share culpability for the new tournament with the counties and other ‘stakeholders’ (by which he presumably means members and supporters too), and implied that the consultation carried out was exhaustive. This really stuck in the craw. It was well reported at the time that certain counties were vehemently opposed to The Hundred – it initially failed to win support from Middlesex, Essex, Kent, and Surrey – and the overall implementation process has been described as ‘one of the most corrosive episodes in the history of the domestic game’ which has ‘inspired derision and division, rancour, remorse, and apprehension’.
For Graves to glibly remark “the counties could have voted it down – they didn’t”, when we read multiple reports at the time that counties were ‘browbeaten, bamboozled’ and ‘bribed’ (to the tune of £1.3m each), seems incredibly disingenuous. The truth is that the creation of the Hundred was an incredibly rocky ride for the ECB, and the consultation fell well short of what most observers would call satisfactory. Existing cricket supporters were excluded – we were infamously told that the Hundred wasn’t for us anyway – plus it was widely reported that only a handful of players were consulted before The Hundred unveiling. Does this sound like a thorough consultation process to you?
The picture that Harrison and Graves therefore presented, where opposition was portrayed as minimal, consultation extensive, stakeholders all onboard, responsibility shared, and research overwhelmingly supportive, simply wasn’t accurate. Instead the overriding feeling has been one of concern, disenfranchisement, and fear for the future of existing competitions. Even the PCA, whose members (well some of them) will receive huge pay days from The Hundred have argued that the competition might harm the championship, create ‘super-counties‘. and devalue the domestic 50 over competition – with the result being that there would be “no clear pathway to one-day international cricket“.
Despite all this, however, Tom Harrison argued to the DCMS committee that the Hundred was all about ‘growing the game and protecting the things we value most’. It was a bit like the head of Wallmart arguing that the new store they’re launching in a small town is designed to protect the small independent shops on the local high street. Precisely nobody is buying this.
As someone who’s long wondered whether the Hundred was predominantly conceived to make money from licensing a new form of cricket, a couple of exchanges really made my ears prick up. For starters Graves conceded at one point that the ECB “missed the boat” with T20. After all, the ECB invented professional T20 at domestic level but stood and watched as India’s IPL stole their thunder. What’s more, Graves announced (and I’d never heard this reported before) that four other countries were keeping close tabs on the Hundred and were seriously thinking of investing in the format themselves. Cha-ching! Maybe that’s what it’s all about?
Talking of money, there was also an exchange about the ECB’s cynical decision to make KP snacks the Hundred’s main sponsor. Harrison argued that KP enables them to reach an audience they have haven’t been able to reach before in an apparent attempt to imply that the end justified the means. Whilst Harrison said that he recognised there was an obesity crisis in the country, and that he didn’t want to downplay or ignore the gravity of this situation, there’s no getting away from the fact that the ECB are indeed downplaying and ignoring the situation by taking KP’s cash.
One suspects, of course, that the ECB eagerly took KP’s money because it was the highest offer they got (pure and simple). And is it any wonder when we read reports that the set up costs for the Hundred have spiralled out of control? This budgeting issue led to perhaps the most memorable part of the afternoon’s proceedings. Tom Harrison was asked several times, very directly, what the original budget was and how much the ECB have spent thus far. He simply refused to answer.
This passage of play was like watching Jeremy Paxman grill Michael Howard all those years ago. All the CEO could say is that expenditure had been “in line with expectations” and that “I’m not going to reveal what that is”. Jo Stevens, the Labour MP from the DCMS committee asking the question, seemed less than impressed: “Mr Harrison, it’s a simple question. What was the budget and what have you spent?” I almost expected Paxman to climb out from beneath a desk and ask “did you threaten to overrule him”?
The tough questions didn’t end there. And the answers didn’t get any clearer. When asked how the Hundred was going to grow the game when it’s restricted to just seven cities, Tom Harrison responded by arguing that games could actually be seen at most first class grounds throughout the land. I’m not sure the word ‘disingenuous’ actually covers this response. The ECB knows full well that the men’s game is the main attraction here – they constantly reiterated this when grilled over the disparity in pay for the men and women’s events – and that men’s games will indeed be restricted to eight venues in seven cities. Only women’s matches can be caught at non-test playing grounds.
Graves was also asked multiple times “what’s wrong with T20”? Indeed, I might have asked him this myself. The ECB’s response was that nothing is particularly wrong with T20 and that the Blast has been a great success. So why is a new tournament needed then? It’s because, according to Graves, cricket needs something new – and the emergence of T10 proves this. I’m not entirely sure what T10 has to do with the Hundred, and why it justifies its creation, but when bizarre claims are coming thick and fast it’s hard to pick apart every single one.
When Graves and Harrison, who were flanked by Lord Patel of Bradford and Clare Connor, temporarily left the DCMS committee room, it was the time for four others to have their say: including Becky Fairlie-Clarke and Andy Nash. Whilst the former was in a slightly difficult position because she had to represent all cricket fans, including the minority actually in favour of The Hundred, the latter was free to express his displeasure liberally. It was an entertaining and altogether more cathartic ride.
Nash, who resigned from the ECB board a year and a half ago in protest at poor standards of corporate governance, summed up my personal feelings (and the prevailing mood of this blog) when he described the Hundred as “a reckless punt with potential to split the game and bankrupt the game”. Although this conclusion frightens me, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to disagree.
When the masterminds behind the Hundred are asked to explain the reasons for the tournament, and their answers to the DCMS committee are either disingenuous (I hesitate to use the word dishonest) or illogical, one has to conclude that there is no sound basis for its inception. And that’s the inescapable bottom line here. If the people selling something are incapable of selling it (without resorting to half-truths) then supporters are bound to smell a rat.
Before I sign off I strongly recommend you all read George Dobell’s written submission to the DCMS committee. He simply says what needs to be said. Thank heavens there are still journalist out there who are prepared to speak truth to power.
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