The England and Wales Cricket Board staged what it described as a “whole game meeting” at Millbank Tower in London on Monday, where it brought together representatives of all the nation’s counties and clubs to talk through the five-year plan for the sport.
The ECB presented a strategy document called Inspiring Generations that contained a lot of information on where the game is now and even more about where it wants it to get to, but rather less on how it is actually going to move between the two. The little details of what the ECB is actually going to do in order to deliver any of the many fine things it is promising will, it said, follow sometime soon.
The first thing everyone wanted to talk about was the “new competition”. It still does not have an official name and it is not clear what the teams will be called or exactly where the games will be played.
However, the chief executive, Tom Harrison, was anxious to do what he described as “some myth-busting” about it. “The new competition is being designed to appeal to cricket fans first and foremost,” Harrison said, “but then it’s also for a broader audience.”
It is supposed to win them over by addressing the “three key challenges” identified by the ECB: right now a lot of people who like sport do not like cricket because it is too long, too complex and too inaccessible.
Harrison confirmed that the ECB has committed to spending £180m on the new competition over five years. Even so he was keen to stress that it was “already a profitable venture” because it was a central part of the £1.1bn TV rights deal. “We would not be onfree-to-air TV without that new competition and we would not have the premium that we got through the media rights process had that competition not been there.”
He was confident that, despite the scepticism expressed by Virat Kohli, who said last August, “I feel somewhere the commercial aspect is taking over the real quality of cricket,” the ECB would not have any trouble persuading players to take part.
“Clearly it’s a format which throws different challenges on to the table for cricketers,” Harrison said. “I think new players will really want to test their ability in a format of the game which we think will provide more pressure at those key moments in games. It will be a very good training ground for international T20.”
He was also breezily confident that the ECB’s existing T20 tournament, the Blast, “can coexist with the new competition and both can flourish” because “we believe that the market can take further growth”. And he promised that “we all understand the importance of the county championship”, which he describes as “our blue riband event”.
The counties will be assuaged, too, by £450m in direct funding over the five years, with £50m of it set aside for improving venues and infrastructure.
The new competition is only one part of the ECB’s plan and Harrison seemed keen to ensure it did not dominate the discussions. “It’s not a new format,” he said – although he kept referring to it as exactly that – “it’s a competition designed to do a certain job for a certain period of the season.”
There are other parts of what the ECB wants to do that, if it gets them right, will be more important for the future of the game. “We’re not comfortable with where we are in schools,” Harrison said. Right now cricket is played in only 22% of schools, which makes it the eighth most popular team sport. The detailed plan for what they are going to do about it is going to be released next year.
Similarly the ECB has realised that it needs to broaden both its player base and audience. Right now, it says, cricket has 10.5 million “followers” but 82% of them are men, 94% of them are white and their average age is 50.
“What success looks like is that in five years’ time people can say, ‘Cricket is a game for me,’” Harrison said, “wherever you are from in this country, regardless of background, religion, where you live or how old you are.” He wants the sport to “shed this curious tag of elitism and privilege which we carry around with us”.
The alternative to all this, Harrison explained, was that the board would be left “managing decline”, although at the same time he insisted that “our game has never been in a better position”.