Written evidence submitted by George Dobell
The ECB’s current strategy represents a huge and unnecessary risk to the future of the game in England and Wales.
While the ECB’s initial motivation may well have been good – something needed to be done to ensure the game remained relevant – their course of action amounts to little more than a reckless gamble.
The new competition (The Hundred) in itself is not a major problem. It will still pit bat v ball; it will still (given good weather and good pitches) offer decent entertainment. There is no reason why ensuring more people watch it will not attract more people into a love of the sport. It’s still a great game.
The problem is more the sacrifices being made for it.
Consider the domestic 50-over competition. Having built towards the World Cup for four years (since the debacle of the 2015 tournament), the ECB have responded to England’s success by all but abandoning the format. If that sounds like hyperbole remember this: in 2020, the best 90 or so England limited-over players will no longer be available to play domestic 50-over cricket as it coincides with The Hundred. That means that our next generation of ODI players – the very people we want to represent the team at the 2023 and 2027 World Cups – may NEVER play a domestic 50-over game. What possible chance are we giving them to compete against the best in the world in this format? Where is the legacy for the World Cup triumph? It is a puzzling strategy.
The County Championship fares little better in their plans. In an attempt to make space for the window in the schedule in which to play The Hundred, the Championship (the competition which develops Test players) will increasingly be played in the margins of the season. That means it will be played, on the whole, in April, May and September, which the pitches and weather conditions render life almost impossibly hard for batsmen and provide disproportionate assistance for the sort of medium-paced seam bowlers who had little use on the far better pitches prevalent in Test cricket. Especially Test cricket played abroad.
It is, therefore, no exaggeration to state that the ECB’s current strategy threatens to compromise the ability of England to remain competitive in this format. It therefore threatens the viability of Test cricket to remain an attractive prospect to broadcasters. The ECB really are likely to be responsible for the decline of the oldest and most revered format of the international game. As Test cricket remains, at present, the most lucrative form of the game for the ECB, this is another extremely risky approach.
And then there’s the T20 Blast. This has been a huge success story in recent years. Despite little support from the governing body (you may recall the ECB chairman renouncing it as ‘mediocre’), attendances have grown by more than 50% over the last four years. With a little nurturing (and some free to air exposure), the format could provide a wonderful vehicle for growth and engagement. Evidence from all over the word suggests it works. Instead, it is being pushed into the earlier months of the summer and relegated to secondary status. Our governing body’s failure to promote and nurture their own product is bewildering.
So why go for The Hundred? Well, it’s a bit shorter. And that matters. Free to air broadcasters wanted both something a bit different (partly because the ECB have tainted the reputation of their own product; remember Colin Graves’ “mediocre” comments) and a bit shorter to fit into their schedules and appeal to a new audience. Bit with a tiny bit of comprising – time clocks; perhaps shortened run-ups for bowlers as we used to see in the Sunday League – the T20 format could have been made to work. The cynic might suggest the incentive of personal bonuses has been vital in securing the support of key officials at the ECB. It sometimes seems hard to find anyone outside the governing body or the relevant broadcasters who believe The Hundred is a good idea.
There are too many risks inherent in The Hundred’s scheduling. Despite the former ECB chairman, David Morgan, producing a report earlier this decade which made it clear that spectators desired predictability in the fixture list (ie, games at specific times on specific days
– such as 6.30 pm Friday night or 2pm on Saturday afternoon) and some spread between matches (so there was not too much commitment required from them in terms of time or spending in a short space of time), the ECB have instead opted for games on every night of the week. It is what the broadcasters prefer of course, but risks alienating supporters (have you ever met one who said ‘what cricket needs is a new format’? No, nor me) and puts the entire competition as the risk of poor weather. Look what happened when The Blast was played in a window and was hit by a wet summer in 2012. Attendances fell sharply. If the opening days of The Hundred are similarly affected, all the momentum of the competition will be negative. Like the BBC show Eldorado or the Millennium Dome: damaged by poor PR before they were born.
Meanwhile, the traditional teams – the first-class counties – will be relegated to secondary competitions. Yes, they will benefit from short-term gain (the £1.3m inducement offered for their support), but in the medium-term (those payments only last five years), the decision to bring in eight new team identities threatens to cannibalise the game and could see cricket disappear from some areas of the country.
What evidence do we have that the public wanted new team identifies? What evidence do we have to suggest existing supporters will accept them? What evidence is there of a success of such a policy in other sports in the UK? It seems to me the evidence suggests quite the opposite. And remember this: the county CEOs originally voted for a change which would see the T20 Blast played over two divisions with relegation and promotion. It was only after a chairmen’s meeting (chaired by Colin Graves) that this approach was abandoned. Isn’t it a bit odd that several counties were close to bankruptcy while the ECB retained reserves of nearly
£80m? Isn’t it reasonable to suggest a possibility that these counties were kept poor in order to ensure their compliance?
The governance of the ECB is probably relevant here. Are we really comfortable with Yorkshire – a county that disproportionately benefits from the introduction of The Hundred - owing Colin Graves family trusts circa £20m? Are we comfortable that the decision to strip Durham of their rights to host Test cricket also benefited Yorkshire disproportionately, as it reduced competition for such games among the northern grounds? Are we comfortable that Graves also chairs the ECB’s nominations committee so effectively has a veto on who joins the board? Are there not reasonable questions here about potential conflicts of interest?
The ‘extra’ money coming into the game is fool’s gold. Look how the ECB’s reserves have plummeted (from somewhere around £78m a couple of years ago to somewhere around £0 now). Look how the ECB were forced to suspend the introduction of the new central contracts
(for England players) from October to February due to cash-flow issues. The start-up costs of The Hundred (which have more than trebled since first quoted), the number of new staff (and consultants) employed to ‘ensure’ its success and inflationary demands from player salaries will eat up this ‘new money’. And while the ECB will tell you, with some justification, the counties are benefitting, the total remuneration package for the ECB CEO (salary, pension and expenses) is now believed to surpass the entire salary bill for several first-class counties. Disability cricket, for example, is not gaining an extra pound from the new broadcast deal.
Nor is recreational cricket. How can that be termed a success?
There is very little wrong with the game of cricket in England and Wales that could not be resolved with more of the sport broadcast live on free to air platforms. It was the ECB’s strategy of selling the game exclusively to a subscription broadcaster that inflicted the damage. The ECB’s strategy of betting the farm on a new competition no-one wanted could well compound the issue.
A refreshed T20 competition – and, perhaps, a new FA Cup style knockout T20 competition – would have been far safer, more appropriate methods by which to grow the game. It may not be too late to pursue them.
George Dobell, Senior Correspondent ESPNcricinfo and founder of the Cricket Supporters’ Association.
Costs of The Hundred - including payments to counties - just under £59m a year. Income just over £51m.