Episode 85: Suing the ECB? Former board member and Somerset chairman Andy Nash suggests how to resist its destruction of English cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

After a varied and highly successful business career, Andy Nash was chairman of Somerset County Cricket Club for ten years full of achievement on and off the field. He became a non-executive director of the England and Wales Cricket Board,  but resigned dramatically and publically over fundamental issues. As the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast he forensically dissects the ECB’s errors and failures in running English cricket – and tells fans how to oppose them.

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Andy first relates a Somerset fairytale. He told it to a crowd of children of 7 upwards from the county’s age-group teams in the “players’ pathway” and their families and they were awed by the true story of the farmer’s boy, Harold Gimblett.  Rejected before the end of his trial with the county, he was then summoned into the side to a distant ground as an emergency replacement. After missing the early bus from his home village, he hitched a lift on a milk lorry, reached the ground late, was thrust in at number 8 after Somerset had crumbled to 107 for six – and scored a century in 63 minutes with faultless strokeplay. Somerset won the match. The following year, 1936, he played three Test matches for England. After over 350 other matches for Somerset, he remains by some distance its highest first-class run-scorer.

To Andy, Gimblett’s story represents the essence of English county cricket and gives children a timeless lesson, not to be branded as a failure and believe in their ability. He mentions later Gimbletts: the talent Somerset has uncovered by strongly-developed local scouting networks all over the South-West of England, including Marcus Trescothick, Jos Buttler and, recently, the all-rounder Lewis Goldsworthy from Camborne, Cornwall, one of the most economically-deprived areas in Europe.

He suggests that Somerset’s efforts highlight the importance of county cricket in providing pathways for talented cricketers: it takes responsibility for this in Devon and Cornwall, and shares Dorset with Hampshire CCC and Wiltshire with Gloucestershire CCC. For this reason alone he passionately opposes the ECB’s apparent intention to reduce the number of first-class counties. This would definitely reduce the chance of discovery in the English game for both men and women. He fiercely attacks the franchise system apparently sought by the ECB and expressed in the Hundred. Franchises do not develop talent or grounds and infrastructure: they simply exploit those developed by others as long-term investment. He suggests that there is no evidence that English fans follow franchises in any sport rather than historic teams rooted in localities. He notes that the Indian Premier League and the Australian Big Bash are beginning to falter.

He explains his motives for resigning from the ECB, especially over its apparent ambition to limit first-class cricket to major English cities. He demolishes, on demographic grounds, the frequent comparisons made between this plan and the Australian Sheffield Shield.

He cites the 2016 proposal for a two-tier T20 competition between the counties with promotion and relegation. It could have continued the success of T20 in winning new audiences and revenues for the counties and inducing fans to migrate to longer forms of the game. It would have obviated the need to create the Hundred, bypassing the counties in favour of synthetic teams with no local identity. He repeats his description of the Hundred as a “wrecking ball” for the English game, one which has undermined the county-based T20 Blast competition and, above all, forced the first-class County Championship into the margins of the English season, in months when pitches and weather conditions tend to be at their worst and potential spectators have the least leisure and motive to watch. The devaluing of the County Championship had generated an unprecedented run of failure in English Test cricket – still far and away the game’s biggest source of following and revenue and investment capital.

He suggests that the ECB’s prime strategy is to centralize control of the game whatever the consequences. Clearly they would prefer to concentrate cricket into eight ECB franchises in preference to eighteen autonomous counties. The ECB’s ambitions had been abetted by interested parties in the media, but he noted that David Lloyd had recanted his support for the Hundred on leaving Sky Sports, and many other respected figures in the game were passionately opposing the assault on county cricket. There was no evidence for success of the Hundred and growing awareness of its weakening of English cricket which the ECB was charged with protecting.

He explains the murky structure and responsibilities of the ECB as a limited company with a constitution. Although the eighteen first-class counties owned a substantial block of the shares they rarely acted as one. Given the devastating effect of Covid on their revenues, some were understandably attracted by the ECB’s project of a cull in their number and the hope of a larger share of the game’s future media revenues. He notes that many of the larger counties, with Test grounds, were carrying the biggest current debt.

He speculates that the ECB’s ambitions towards counties would face litigation and be tested in the courts against its constitutional duties towards English cricket. Fans were already showing far greater activism in their counties and were seeking to mandate their club chairs to preserve the game. If they succeed with enough counties the ECB would be blocked.

He describes his experience giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in 2019, for an inquiry unfortunately overtaken by the election that year. The reconstituted Select Committee had understandably refocused on issues of racism and diversity in the game, and helped to expose the ECB’s response, weakened and confused by its competing responsibilities for regulating the game and promoting it. He thought that the ultimate beneficial outcome would be an independent Regulator.

Far from culling the first-class counties, the ECB should consider increasing them to 24, in three divisions. This would entail killing the Hundred. The ECB and others believed in the myth that county cricket was dying, but overlooked their huge and growing following on social media and through streaming. He cited Somerset’s figures, not only within the county but through the wide geographic spread of the South West. All the county game needed was appropriate support and marketing – yet the ECB had almost totally ignored the opening of the County Championship programme on 7 April. By historic standards, this was grotesquely early and would increase players’ risk of injury. In a greatly shortened programme (in five instalments) some counties could find their hopes of the Championship virtually extinguished before May.  The season offered nothing to Taunton spectators in the holiday month of August except a few 50-over games from which Somerset would lose nine of their best players, and other counties were similarly affected. He calls for the Championship to be restored throughout the season and suggests how it could be interweaved with T20.

Andy concludes with confidence that the ECB’s obsessions with centralizing and monetizing the game can be resisted and that English cricket’s wider values can be restored. He anticipates an explosion if, as thought to be imminent, the ECB signs a ten-year media deal centred around the Hundred. This could be the trigger for litigation. He suggests means of resistance for fans against the ECB: joining a county club and making their views known to its chair; writing to their MP or the Minister of Sport; joining the Cricket Supporters Association and follow County Cricket Matters (founded by previous guest Annie Chave).

Like other previous guests he is challenged to name the current Minister of Sport. The outcome is revealed at the end of the podcast.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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