Episode 98: High performance or last performance? Campaigner Alan Higham dissects the ECB review 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.

Alan Higham has become a leading campaigner for the preservation of the county championship as the foundation of first-class cricket in England and Wales and for real consultation with its supporters over its future. He explains why this is essential now in the light of the ECB’s just-published high-performance review, as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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Alan outlines his lifelong commitment to English cricket. A Lancashire expatriate he has also been a member of Surrey and Hampshire and watched England perform at no fewer than 50 international grounds. His campaigning is grounded in a long-held belief that English cricket authorities pay too little attention to the needs and views of paying spectators. Some fifteen years ago Mike Atherton wrote an article drawing on Alan’s views, which had generated important contacts for him throughout English cricket. He outlines his recent roles with the Cricket Supporters Association (co-founded by past podcast guest George Dobell) and activist organizations within each county. He and they were determined to avoid repeating with the high-performance review the experience of the Hundred, pushed through the counties by the ECB with minimal consultation with their memberships. 1 and 3-7 minutes

Alan says that 15 of the 18 English and Welsh first-class counties are member-owned. He explains their legal status and structure as mutual organizations, but also why, despite this, there are wide variations in the control actually exercised by county members over key decisions and appointments. As with the England and Wales Cricket Board, there has been a general trend within counties to appoint professional directors focused on commercial motives rather than their social objectives as cricket clubs. He pungently compares one county’s elections to those of Robert Mugabe. In more and more counties Nominations Committees are concentrating power in small groups at the expense of the wider membership. 8-13 minutes

Alan explains the origins and purpose of the new County Cricket Members Group. It sought to alert all cricket county members of the prospects of irrevocable change to English cricket if the ECB’s proposals in the high-performance review were let through by the counties. It also sought to unite them in a common objective to preserve all 18 of the English first-class counties and prevent the ECB playing them off against each other, as in the past over the Hundred and other key issues. The Group has enlisted some 6000 supporters, almost entirely from word of mouth and voluntary activity at cricket grounds. It wants to expand membership of all counties by improving their spectator experience and representation.14-17 minutes

Alan explains the origins and main content of the high-performance review led by Sir Andrew Strauss, and its implications. The ECB, which commissioned it, has accepted all 17 of its recommendations. Fifteen are relatively uncontentious and lie within its own power to implement but the other two are fundamental and require two-thirds majority acceptance from the eighteen first-class counties. These are the proposed reduction and restructuring of the County Championship and the new scheduling of all the competitions in the English season. If accepted, they would go through in 2024. 18-19 minutes

Alan expresses the principal objections of the CCMG and other organizations to the proposals:

  • a ten-game County Championship leaves county members with only five home first-class fixtures, a dangerously small motive to become or remain a member; 20-21 minutes
  • a six-member top division with two feeder divisions of six competing for one promotion place will provide few meaningful matches for the weaker “feeder” counties not in contention for promotion. Taken together, he believes that the Championship proposals will be a mortal threat for 8 or more existing counties whose grounds are not used for international or Hundred matches; 20-21 minutes
  • shrinkage of first-class cricket to major population centres would severely reduce opportunities for talented cricketers, such as Marcus Trescothick, from more distant parts of Britain; 23-24 minutes
  • city-based and city-named major teams will weaken present support for cricket from other parts of existing counties; 25-26 minutes
  • the continued prioritization of the Hundred and its dominance of the prime spectator month of August will advance the ECB’s agenda of establishing its central control over English professional cricket. Alan believes that the ECB is contemplating additional Hundred franchises as a means of inducing counties to make up the necessary two-thirds majority. 27-29 minutes

In the longer term, Alan suggests that the ECB’s ambition is to expand Hundred franchises and sell them to private equity, which would leave major English cricket dominated by short-term business interests and the remaining county clubs, with their member governance and wider social objectives, hopelessly and permanently weakened. There is now a mortal struggle over the future ownership, control and values of English cricket. 29-31 minutes

However, Alan believes that profit and social ambitions can co-exist in domestic sport, and cites the model of the German Bundesliga, where member-run clubs have achieved commercial success and developed generations of great players. Committed cricket supporters with a wide range of talents could and should now come together with existing cricket managements to create such a structure. 32-34 minutes

But would this happen under the current ECB in its present governance? Can it be made more accountable to English cricket supporters and to make more use of their contributions? Alan sees hope in the promised searching review of all the ECB’s operations by the incoming chair, Richard Thompson, and even more in the eventual report of its Commission on equity, which will force it to address the legacy of exclusion and prejudice in English cricket. 35-37 minutes

From his experience in the financial services industry, Alan expresses deep scepticism over the merits of political intervention over the future of cricket or external regulation. He praised the government’s creation of a fan-led review of English football, but called for the ECB to commission a similar one for cricket without waiting for government, in contrast to its specious and token involvement of fans hitherto. 39-41 minutes

Such a review must take in the role and priority of the Hundred and its impact on other competitions. These issues been excluded from the terms of reference of the high-performance review and fatally undermined its logic and integrity. Alan makes an interesting proposal: the Hundred could be run in April and used to promote other cricket in the remainder of the season. He sees no evidence that the Hundred in August has promoted new participation in local cricket clubs or the counties. 44-48 minutes

Listeners can sign up to the campaign to save county cricket using this link


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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