Four miles separates the England and Wales Cricket Board offices in St John’s Wood and the Houses of Parliament, but some of the tactics applied in English cricket’s Twenty20 debate were straight out of Westminster.
The ECB used the levers of power to their advantage and over the course of the last two-and-a-half years have been singular with their policy to introduce a new Big Bash style Twenty20 competition to “future-proof” the game. They refused to take no for an answer and built a case backed up with external research that was presented this week.
They bent the doubters to their will. Pressure was applied like a three line party whip on wavering county chairmen, many of whom are part-time volunteers without the personal financial investment in the club that gives football chairmen clout. Expensive and extensive research was commissioned on grassroots sport and the broadcast market to back up the masterplan and clever political manoeuvrings blindsided opponents. The counties had never been hit by such an orchestrated campaign.
It culminated in Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, beating Britain’s cricket loving Prime Minister by 24 hours to triggering an article change. As the postal ballot papers are returned over the next three weeks, and the necessary votes are received to approve Graves’s plan to change the ECB constitution to allow a new tournament to be established without the counties, 130 years of cricket tradition will come to an end.
Many said it would never happen. Surely the county turkeys would never put a cross in the box marked Christmas. English cricket’s institutional inertia would never give. But Graves and Tom Harrison, the chief executive, succeeded where others feared to tread.
But how did they do it? How did they break down the county bloc and ensure that in future it is the centre that holds all the power?
Ultimately they won because they held all the aces and built an unstoppable momentum without many of the counties realising what had happened. The financial inducement of £1.3m per year left some without the ability to say no. Others will be glad to be rid of the burden of having to sell out their grounds for Twenty20 cricket. From 2020 onwards it will be the ECB with its marketing budget of ‘many millions’ that will stand or fall by attendance figures. The future of the game depends on its success and their conviction it will help cricket fight for the family audience it has lost.
The die was cast in September last year. At a meeting with the 18 counties the ECB presented five options for the future ‘direction of travel’ for Twenty20. But there was only one favoured choice for the board. After presentations and opening arguments Graves went around the room to each chairman asking them to back him. By the end 16 had chosen the city-based option. Three were against.
After the meeting some counties claimed there had been no vote and nothing decided; they had only given permission to further explore the Big Bash option. But the savvy ones knew what had happened. If you are only going to explore one option, then it is not longer one option, it is the decision.
It was the opportunity for opponents to kill the plan but Graves had outflanked them. He had flexed his muscles earlier in the summer when he sacked Richard Thompson, the chairman of Surrey, as head of the ECB’s commercial committee for giving a newspaper interview in which he said his county preferred the two division option for Twenty20 cricket. Counties were further cowed by the Durham experience which showed the power the ECB were willing to wield.
When counties were ordered to sign non disclosure agreements over the Twenty20 plans last summer it prevented opponents from going public. Many chairmen feared what would happen if they broke ranks. Some even worried about court action. Floating the Olympic Stadium as a possible venue set alarm bells ringing at the MCC and the Oval, particularly handy as Surrey were the major dissenters for the ECB.
The final fear that the £1.3 million payment from the tournament would be withheld if counties did not sign over their media rights to the ECB was telling. It was a risk none were willing to take, the final county signing on the dotted line last week.
Hundreds of phone calls to wavering chairmen and meetings with Graves, Harrison or other ECB officials took place throughout the summer and even up until Monday’s meeting. Chairmen were told to be strong, not be lead by their members and think of the wider good of the game.
The big stars helped. County chairmen can be star-struck and presentations by Andrew Strauss changed a few minds. The appearance of Eoin Morgan added the final dash of stardust on Monday.
But in the end money mattered. The ECB commissioned Pitch International to value its television rights. When they valued the new city based tournament to be worth £35 million per year and the county competition as it stands at £7 million chairmen were asked what do you want? £35 million or £7 million. Not many opted for the latter.
There was also a shrewd move to bring chief executives into the fold. Often they are far more perceptive than chairmen when it comes to the financial realities of the decisions made at the top table because they deal with the bread and butter of running a county club every day. They had been a thorn in the side of the ECB in the past. Now many were invited to sit on the various panels established to make the new competition work. This has played on individual ambition of some chief executives. There are two or three chairmen also eyeing promotion with the potential for an ECB deputy chairman election later this year.
Finally the dilution of county power was confirmed by the vote to change the articles of association. The 21 non first-class boards have been given the same equal vote as Surrey or Yorkshire. The ECB argue they deserve a vote because they will benefit from the funds raised by the new tournament which will bankroll grass roots initiatives the county boards will run. The county boards will vote in one 21 vote bloc in favour of change. That leaves the ECB requiring just ten more votes. Game over.
There is no doubt Graves, Harrison and others are convinced their plan will save English cricket. “It is about box office,” said Harrison on Monday.
Others have held such strong convictions before but hit a county wall of resistance. This time it was broken down brick by brick and the game will never look the same again.