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After 25 years of the Suits, is the spinning, self-interested ECB still fit for purpose?

·5-min read

Do you remember “The Blazers”? Cobwebbed and liver-spotted, ranged around the walnut-inlaid committee table in kipper-stained tie, regimental cufflinks and masonic under-truss, The Blazers were a kind of management class in British sport. People would often rail against The Blazers, their short-sightedness, their gentleman-amateur snobbery. But The Blazers pretty much had the run of things right through to the 1990s, when they were replaced by The Suits.

The Suits were different. The Suits were rainmakers and modernisers. They came from “business”, a basking pet food wholesale magnate here, a semi-retired double glazing tycoon there. They used words like “monetise” and “customer-facing” and “multilayered corporate emancipation”, all of which basically meant the same thing, which was “monetise”.

Satellite TV appeared. Low-hanging fruit was scooped up. The Suits created the current, successful model of broadcast rights auctions and Big Hospitality.

Essentially, they commodified the crap out of that thing you love, which The Blazers had so grimly parcelled out; and which is, to be fair, on TV all the time and a lot more whizzy.

As of this week it is exactly 25 years since this process was set in train in English cricket. The England and Wales Cricket Board, a private limited company, was called into existence in September 1996 to replace the existing baroque, Blazer-clogged structure.

This is quite a long time ago now. That same month the Spice Girls were No 1 in the charts, cartwheeling across the dining table, whirling the maître d’ around at his plinth, sending the colonel’s monocle pinging out into the lobster bisque. This was a time of Girl Power, Lord MacLaurin, Britpop, Charles Colvile, Vodafone singlets, the basic miracle of more than five TV channels. And yes, looking back, it does feel like Modern got Old pretty quickly. That same model remains the structure of governance in English cricket. Is it still what we want? It feels like a legitimate question right now. The ECB has commemorated its quarter-century with a truly wretched couple of weeks. Most obviously there was the cancellation of the mini-tour of Pakistan, wrapped up in a cowardly, anonymised mea non culpa blaming Covid bubbles and player weariness.

Related: Pakistan feel ‘used and binned’ by England’s withdrawal, says PCB chair

This is surely an act of transparent deceit. The men’s tour was due to be four days long. There is no way on earth a crew of English cricketers couldn’t be found to make the trip. Talk of security concerns turned out to be baseless. More likely, the ECB took this decision because it served its own immediate interests, because some star employees didn’t want to go, and because Pakistan’s generosity in bailing out English cricket last summer meant absolutely nothing in that moment.

It is graceless and unworthy behaviour from a body whose existence is only validated if it retains a sense of mission, of duty, of obligations that go beyond pure self-interest. Not least because the ECB’s own articles of association dictate it must promote the game of cricket both inside and outside its own territory, an obligation that has clearly not been met here.

It will leave a lasting wound. But not shame, it seems, because this is also a shameless organisation.

Witness the astonishing greed of that £2.1m bonus to be shared among Tom Harrison and his fellow executives in return, basically, for delivering the Hundred.

This is, frankly, a scandal. “We are not-for-profit – all our money goes into the game,” the ECB website states, a demonstrable untruth given Chance to Shine, for example, receives pretty much the same sum as the management bonus round. Sixty ECB staff lost their jobs during the pandemic, sent on their way with some startling schmaltz from Harrison about his heartbreak at seeing such footsoldiers of the game lose their jobs (while trousering his own excess pay).

Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, shared £2.1m with his fellow executives
Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, shared £2.1m with his fellow executives. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

But then the ECB has evolved this side of its operations rapidly. A culture of spin, puff, misdirection – and the modern corporate technique of wheeling out genuine, legitimate, deeply felt concerns to dress up its business decisions. So we are told commercially driven cancellations are due to welfare and mental health concerns, thereby cheapening the genuine issue of welfare and mental health concerns. We hear the Hundred was called into being as a lever for the vital issue of gender equality in sport, a piece of corporate mendacity put into context this week by the revelation the England captain Heather Knight was simply informed from above (hey, it’s about player welfare, remember?) that her team’s tour of Pakistan was off.

At the end of which, it seems fair to ask the question. Are we happy with this? Are these the right people to act as keepers of this shared cultural treasure? The TCCB, which the ECB replaced, lasted a little less than 30 years. Is this thing still fit for purpose? Lest we forget, the ECB is just a corporate construct, one idea of how this can work. Its founding aim, its raison d’etre, was to monetise international cricket, the one real cash cow of the time; to manage the key relationship between England team, TV broadcast rights and central contracts.

This landscape has now changed. International cricket is in decline. The ECB is losing its sense of total control as players become the dominant agents. The franchise world has subverted that old dynamic. Hence the scramble to create something else to sell, to make decisions that are based around clinging to its own sphere of power.

Look up from all this and there are profound, delicately-poised existential questions here about the future of cricket, about what can be saved, about how the national summer sport can continue to inform and delight and console. Do you trust this current crew to oversee that delicate balancing act? Do we see the right standards of care, of disinterested guardianship, of basic competence? Or are we already looking at some other, uninvited form of person, an iteration beyond The Suits: the Asset Sweaters, the Corporate Vandals, the End Days Crew.

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