‘Luddite members will kill county cricket unless they allow change’ – Durham chief executive

Pavilion at Aigburth, Liverpool
AIgburth hosts Lancashire against Hampshire in the County Championship, a competition beloved by members whose adherence to tradition, some CEOs think, threatens to kill the game - Gareth Copley/Getty Images

A string of senior county figures believe privatisation is inevitable and hit out at “Luddite” members holding clubs back.

In a new book published this week, several county chief executives have voiced their support for private investment in ailing clubs but warned the game is at a “fragile time” in its history.

In Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive, a book about the current state of county cricket by former Telegraph Sport journalist Ben Bloom, Tim Bostock, the chief executive of Durham leads the calls to lessen the influence of county members.

Durham are one of three privately owned counties so not answerable to members, of which there are around 60,000 across the country.

Bostock in the past has talked about lining up Saudi investment in Durham while Hampshire, another privately owned club, have attracted interest from the part-owners of the Delhi Capitals IPL franchise, who have been in talks with the club’s former chair, and majority stakeholder, Rod Bransgrove.

Delhi Capitals' Abishek Porel
Owners of the Delhi Capitals have been in talks with Hampshire, one of three privately owned first-class counties - SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

It comes at a time when the game is discussing the sale of equity in the Hundred franchises which could in turn lead to some counties considering outside offers and private ownership.

An article in the Cricketer magazine recently revealed that five counties have needed emergency financial help from the England and Wales Cricket Board over the past two years and that an average of 47 per cent of clubs’ revenue is generated by payments from the governing body. Some smaller counties, Worcestershire (63 per cent), Middlesex (64 per cent), Leicestershire (65 per cent), and Gloucestershire (60 per cent) – are higher.

A member revolt two years ago was partly responsible for sinking the Andrew Strauss review into the domestic structure which recommended cutting the number of championship matches, which are popular with members who are also, by and large, unsupportive of the Hundred.

“Members don’t realise that what they are trying to say will kill the game. We’re running a multi-million-pound professional sport and yet the long-term, big decisions are made by a handful of... I don’t want to call them activists because they will get on their high horse but they are effectively activists,” said Bostock.

“Of all the millions of people who watch cricket in an English summer, the whole structure is being dictated to by what might only be about 10,000 people. You’ve got chairmen threatened with removal if they don’t do what a small handful of Luddites say – and they are Luddites. They are passionate Luddites, but they are Luddites. I just don’t know how they think it will survive without radical change. We’ve ended up with the lowest common denominator ruling the day.”

Bostock’s view was supported by Will Brown, the chief executive of Gloucestershire, who is hoping to fund a ground move away from Bristol over the next decade.

County Ground, Bristol
Gloucestershire are exploring the sale of Nevil Road to build a new home and make themselves financially less reliant on ECB disbursements - Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

“You do get that passion, heart and love, but I don’t know if it’s the model for the future,” he said about county membership. “If county cricket was run the way the membership would like it to be run it wouldn’t be sustainable – even down to not having music or replay screens in the T20 Blast because it detracts from the cricket. I’m being facetious but there is potential for disconnect.

“Within the next five years I can see private equity ownership of maybe half the counties, if not more. The minute the first couple go – beyond what Hampshire, Northants and Durham have done previously – the rest will follow, because you won’t have any choice. Maybe that’s how 18 counties survive. It becomes a much more commercial beast, which is scary.”

Under current proposals being discussed, the grounds that host Hundred franchises will be handed 51 per cent equity stakes to sell, with 49 per cent retained by the ECB. If the ECB sells its stake, the money will be split across the whole game. If the club sells its stake, it will keep the money, which could run into hundreds of millions for some.

‘We need to find a way to future-proof ourselves’

“Can we maintain and sustain this model? I don’t know. The way the gap is widening between counties, we need to find a way to future-proof ourselves. I don’t think there has ever been a more fragile time for the whole game,” said Ashley Giles, the chief executive of Worcestershire.

Simon Harmer, who has years of experience of county cricket at Essex, supports a reduction in members’ influence. Harmer is South African and in his home country the SA T20, launched last year, has been a huge success but led to South Africa picking a third string team for a recent Test tour to New Zealand. “In an ideal world you wouldn’t want member-run clubs. It probably breeds an average culture. In an ideal world you would want your club run by cricket people who understand both the cricket and financial side of what goes into a successful county team. I don’t think there would be as much politics, and it would be better for the game.”

Support for the member structure remains strong at the top of the ECB with Richard Gould, the chief executive, believing the fans should have a voice. Gould greatly expanded Surrey’s membership when he was chief executive at the Oval and is cautious of giving up too much control to private finance as he spearheads the Hundred buyout plan.

“When I’ve got clubs moaning that their members want them to do something that they don’t, often it’s clubs that have neglected their membership base. Some clubs have seen them as difficult to deal with. The problem is that the smaller number you’ve got, the more outspoken some of them will be in a smaller pond. More members means more diverse voices, more opinions and it’s much easier to reflect the region,” he said.

“Although the cricket membership model may be a bit slower to react, the facts are that it provides a much more stable model for clubs in the community.”

Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive is published this week