English cricket is braced to be declared institutionally racist. The results of an independent inquiry are imminent. The England and Wales Cricket Board is corralling the boards of the 18 first-class counties to prepare their statements of contrition. Quite what the hundred thousand-plus members of said counties will think is another matter, though.
All but three of the counties are member-owned, a source of both strength and weakness for the game. Pay a couple of hundred quid and you not only get to watch cricket but also have a say in the leadership of your team and, as Andrew Strauss has found out to his cost, in the overall shape of the sport. Strauss’s review of the elite men’s game ran aground on the rocks of county member resistance.
The racism question arose first in Yorkshire and swiftly suffused the sport. Nuanced analysis has been swept away in a tide of generalisations, which will make it harder to persuade the generality of cricket’s members of the validity of the institutional racism charge. Each is effectively challenged to accept that he or she is part of the problem.
Lord Patel has resigned as chair of Yorkshire after only 13 months. Parachuted in by the ECB in response to the crisis, his departure speaks to the depth of the fissures that now exist. Tanni Grey-Thompson is being touted as a possible replacement. The Baroness recently joined the Yorkshire board and is a slick operator in sports politics, although this role though will require skills around the county’s Headingley ground rather than the corridors of power.
I’ve had cause to reflect on the county ownership structure in recent weeks, having been a candidate to be chair of Middlesex. At turns fascinating, frustrating, farcical and fun, the process has just concluded with none of us seven short-listed candidates being appointed. Back to the drawing board for Middlesex’s members and the board that serves them.
In preparing for interview I took soundings across English cricket. It was clear that questions about equality, diversity and inclusion would be front and centre. But more surprising was the lack of emphasis at interview on sporting success, especially for the men’s elite squad.
Not sure what the average Middlesex member might feel about that. And this a county that has won only three trophies in 30 years while its noisy, wealthier neighbour Surrey has 11 titles in the same period.
De-emphasising of cricket success
This de-emphasising of cricketing success is not unique to Middlesex, it seems. My research did, though, reveal an imperative to produce players for the England teams, which goes to the heart of the financial dynamic. The counties are dependent on distributions from the ECB, which in turn largely generates its funds from the England men’s team. But finding cricketers to play for England and delivering a successful county first XI are different things; the cream of the crop may rarely turn out for their counties given international commitments.
Member fees are dwarfed by ECB handouts and the counties’ activities to generate ancillary revenues from their grounds. And yet the members own them. Little wonder they get frustrated whenever any England players choose not to turn out for their counties during breaks in the international calendar.
Good governance is key for the ECB right now, which must make county structures a frustration. However, they are also a bulwark against dictatorship – a charge laid at the door of previous ECB leadership. With members still in control, the financial excesses of football and rugby can be avoided, but without an influx of new cash the national body will always call the tune. Throw in the explosion of T20 leagues around the globe, and the threat to the counties is severe.
I hope Middlesex members learned something from their failed search for a chair that enables them to make an excellent appointment second time round. I got fodder for this column and enjoyed it hugely on the way through, sustained by Groucho Marx’s letter of resignation to the Friars Club in New York: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
With Middlesex now back in Division One after five seasons in the lower tier, I’ll still be rooting for them in what promises to be a pivotal year both on and off the pitch.
Filthy F-bomb tennis
I thought I’d be watching Netflix’s Break Point fly-on-the wall series about tennis so you wouldn’t have to. But for all its stylised imagery and saccharine sentiments, the opening episode about Nick Kyrgios – all smiles, F-bombs and smashed racquets – is worth an hour of your time. It’s downhill after that, though.
The trouble is that Formula 1’s Drive to Survive has set the bar too high, and these documentary makers don’t appear to have had access to the key stories that made the 2022 tennis season.
That may come in future episodes as the sport’s greatest stars get comfortable with the cameras and the degree of editorial control they can exert. The lack of a team dynamic will always be an issue though.
I’ve far higher hopes for the behind-the-scenes series on the upcoming Six Nations rugby that was revealed in City A.M. and confirmed last week. Just so long as they don’t try and sugar-coat the sport.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com