ECB’s Richard Thompson: ‘It’s not quite a Packer moment, but it’s a real risk’

Richard Thompson, the new chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board, is hoping to reunite Jos Buttler’s T20 World Cup winners for a celebration back on home soil but in an international calendar backed up like the M5 on a bank holiday weekend, the question of when is not a simple one.

The fleeting afterglow of the triumph in Melbourne 12 days ago summed up the challenge, those players not heading to rejoin the split Pakistan tour left to fulfil (and lose) three ODIs against a smarting Australia side. As occurred after 50-over glory in 2019, there was barely time for England’s bleary-eyed champions to reach for the paracetamol before their next assignment began.

Speaking to the Guardian at Lord’s during the week, Thompson winces at Steve Harmison’s verdict on BT Sport of the series being “meaningless cricket played in a meaningless way”. So too Buttler’s withering assessment that it was “a good example” of how not to keep bilateral cricket relevant.

“I feel for the players,” says Thompson, nearly three months into his role at the helm of English cricket. “We’re keen to do something to celebrate being the first men’s team to hold both trophies but we want all the players together and that’s not easy. These moments pass so quickly.

“Relevance is everything and that ODI series was the first example of the challenge of a World Cup every year - T20 or 50-over - followed by bilateral cricket. It was out of the natural rhythm for Australia and a bit of a wake up call. But this is an ICC reality.”

Another reality is that, in response to the modern landscape, players are beginning to drop formats, be it Ben Stokes retiring from 50-over cricket or Will Smeed, the uncapped Somerset basher who has called time on first-class cricket aged 21 without ever having played it.

“It’s not quite a Kerry Packer moment but we have to recognise it. We can’t develop players from under nines and then seen them fly off. We have to protect our talent, keep it in the pathway. Players should never be in a situation where they sign three T20 deals and sacrifice their central contract. That will require funding and a lot of thought. It’s a very real risk to the game.”

Cashing in on the success of the national teams is important to Thompson and this week the ECB announced a renewed drive in partnership with Chance 2 Shine and the Lord’s Taverners to get cricket into 300 more schools where at least 40% of the students qualifies for free school meals, plus 200 extra schools that cater for young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

“We’re acutely aware it’s a postcode lottery,” says Thompson. “Where you live determines if you have access to cricket and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

Visibility is key and Thompson was delighted that Sky chose to share the men’s T20 World Cup final with Channel 4, attracting a combined peak audience of nearly four million.

That figure could also have another knock-on effect. While the previous ECB regime renewed the Sky deal until the end of 2028, a terrestrial partner for international highlights, digital clips and Hundred games after 2024 is yet to be agreed. BBC will surely look to renew but other offers will come in.

“There’s quite broad interest this time,” Thompson says. “Particularly in the radio rights. But you have to look at what the broadcaster does [beyond money]. Think of the 30 second ’sizzlers’ for the Hundred during the Wimbledon men’s final. That has a media value of £330k. All of the BBC’s digital channels, radio, broadcast – the commercial value of that support is extraordinary. ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 ... nothing sells rights like a World Cup win.”

There has been hope among the competition’s swathes of detractors that Thompson’s arrival - plus that of another past sceptic at Surrey in Richard Gould, the incoming chief executive - could see it shelved. Both men will be champions of county cricket, especially the T20 Blast which they fought to protect in their previous posts, but the fourth tournament is here to stay.

Asked how his own personal Damascene moment occurred, Thompson simply says “Alice Capsey”, the teen sensation at Oval Invincibles who is now part of the England women’s set-up. “For me it has been the sheer success of the women’s game and seeing a different audience, who weren’t coming to the Blast,” he adds. “That has to be a good thing.

“I wouldn’t have accepted the invite to be chair - and [Gould] certainly wouldn’t have entered the process for chief executive - without seeing the value of the Hundred. We both called it out in 2018, saying it would have a massive impact on the schedule and could cannibalise other competitions - now we will make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We didn’t expect the success of the women’s game. That was happenstance - the double headers. But it’s an expensive competition to run, we have to look at that. But it is working and it’s only two years old. We also have to protect and promote the Blast: Sam Curran, arguably the best in the world right now, learned his craft playing it and we’re world champions at Twenty20.

And the renewed partnership with Gould? “Richard and I are the custodians. It’s not about us. This isn’t the ego-centric approach that might have been before. Cricket is a national asset that comes with huge responsibility. There’s a lot we’d have done differently in the past but it’s an incredibly resilient organisation.

“No sport coped with Covid like cricket did, with bio bubbles and keeping the broadcast revenue coming in. It was extraordinary. We need to get back to the sense of working together, bringing back trust - and we can do that.”

A collegiate approach is certainly needed, with the ECB’s high-performance review still being debated in the shires and a proposal to cut to 10 County Championship fixtures per side each summer met stiff resistance. With England’s men double world champions and boasting six wins from their last seven Tests, has the need for a dramatic overhaul been overstated?

“I don’t think so,” Thompson replies. “Talking to players, the PCA, directors of cricket, [those results] don’t take away the reality of the fatigue and the issues of players being spread across formats. Carry on like we are and you’ll just expedite players choosing a format. We need a compromise.

“We have until the start of next season - teams need to know what they’re playing for. It’s surprised a lot of people, the depth of feeling. Cricket lovers, fans, members were agitated before they’d even seen anything.

“The Hundred has created additional tension - people say we take it out and it frees up the summer. But we can’t do that, we’ve sold it until 2028, we’re two years in - I was an opponent but I can now see the value.”

Are county memberships holding back progress? “What would I prefer, 18 oligarchs like football or member-owned organisations? Supporters are having their say, that says to me cricket is the most democratic sport. But it’s striking the balance between a high-performing England men’s team and a vibrant domestic product.

“But Test cricket, red-ball cricket is in my DNA - if we as a country don’t support it, we can’t expect others to. We will always make sure the Future Tours Programme is protecting it, it’s the gold standard of the game.

Jonny Bairstow acknowledges the crowd as he walks off after his historic century against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in June 2022
Jonny Bairstow acknowledges the crowd after his historic Test century against New Zealand at Trent Bridge in June. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The issues facing Thompson over the course of his five years in charge go beyond trying to prevent men’s cricket from eating itself and expanding the professional women’s game. On the latter, he views the 2026 Women’s T20 World Cup as a chance to create “a national moment” and cites the footballing Lionesses this summer as the blueprint.

But there is a greater existential threat. As well as the long-running saga of Yorkshire and the now delayed CDC racism hearings, the ECB is still rolling out its 12-point diversity action plan across the game and also braced for next year’s report from the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket.

Though Thompson accepts the latter will make “uncomfortable reading”, having attracted more than 4,000 submissions of evidence, he is keen the game pores over its findings and seeks positive solutions.

“It will be a seminal moment. People who have been affected need to be heard and engaged to be part of the solution, so other generations don’t go through it. There has to be a sense of truth and reconciliation and most importantly, that people learn, or history will just repeat itself.

“That document will give us a huge amount of information to show where we can focus in the future. Beyond that, with the 12-point EDI plan and the dressing room culture review, every stakeholder, everyone has to get into this, all 41 [first-class and national] counties. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

As is often the case at the start of an innings in English cricket, there is a fair bit going on.