The appointment of Richard Thompson as chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board after a successful spell at Surrey brings with it a sense of cautious optimism when the sport faces significant challenges on a number of fronts. Though Thompson does not officially start a five-year term until 1 September, there is plenty waiting for the 55-year-old in his in-tray. What are the most pressing items?
Appoint a new chief executive and review the ECB
Thompson fills only part of the leadership vacuum at the ECB, with a permanent chief executive still required after Tom Harrison signed off in May and Clare Connor took the reins temporarily.
It is inevitable Richard Gould, Thompson’s chief executive at Surrey, will be linked given the success the pair had in turning the county into a financial powerhouse with a growing membership. Whether Gould can be tempted back into cricket after moving to Bristol City last year is another matter.
Johnny Grave, in charge at Cricket West Indies, and Wasim Khan, now at the International Cricket Council, would be strong candidates, while Tim Bostock, the chief executive of Durham, is highly regarded. Others will emerge when Thompson begins a process that is top of his to-do list.
Though the ECB is financially strong, there is an expectation its structures will be reviewed, both culturally and with regards to its current, some would say bloated, size. The ECB employs 458 people with an annual payroll of £54m, which exceeds the £38m passed down to the recreational game upon which the sport, ultimately, is built.
The makeup of the ECB board from which Thompson stood down in 2018 will probably also be assessed in light of last year’s aborted tour of Pakistan, the (mis)handling of the Yorkshire affair and concerns over a lack of cricket experience. A voice for the domestic game is set to return, at least, with two first-class chairs to attend board meetings in a non-voting capacity from next month.
The ICEC report and EDI
Perhaps the biggest iceberg on the horizon comes when the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket publishes its report on discrimination this autumn.
In response to the fallout from Azeem Rafiq’s allegations of racism at Yorkshire, the English game has already set in motion a 12-point plan to tackle racism and promote inclusion and diversity, with a focus on education, dressing room culture, talent pathways and governance.
However, the ICEC is reviewing more than 4,000 submissions of evidence from all levels of the pyramid and though conclusions are yet to be formed, a damning verdict is expected after Cindy Butts, its chair, said the sport is “facing a reckoning”.
Thompson’s successes at Surrey include stewardship of the African-Caribbean engagement programme and he has stated he will work tirelessly to make cricket “the most inclusive sport in the country”.
The ECB’s response to the ICEC report will be among the first stress tests of this pledge, as well as the disciplinary proceedings that resulted from the Yorkshire situation and are likely to come to a head around the same time.
Thompson voted against the Hundred as Surrey chair but will now lead a governing body that has locked in the tournament’s future until 2028, with an extension to the Sky deal. Only the terrestrial rights from 2025 onwards are outstanding.
As such, he will need to make the Hundred work and find a way to heal the obvious division it has sown. Even as a champion of the counties, his stated desire for “collaboration” and “partnership” will be challenged significantly.
There are positives. The women’s game has been handed a fitting stage – notwithstanding the wage gap – and there has been some early evidence to suggest a new (or at least previously lapsed) audience has been energised by the heavy lick of marketing paint and terrestrial coverage.
But anger remains, with English cricket having twisted itself into a pretzel for a tournament that was supposed to promote the entire sport. The previously thriving T20 Blast has been squeezed, the Royal London Cup devalued and the County Championship still a predominantly spring/autumn endeavour; any new converts via the Hundred find themselves walking into a bitter, unresolved argument.
Greater alignment of the short-form competitions appears essential, such as more player deals in the Hundred being contingent on performances in the Blast. Thompson will also need to address concerns about the financial imbalance of staging revenues for host counties, worth up to £800,000 a year.
Then there is the question of whether the ECB will resist or embrace investment into the Hundred from outside as the Indian Premier League team owners build empires. It is a weighty decision given there will be no way of putting the toothpaste back in the tube once private money enters the equation.
The high performance review
While the Hundred’s continuation appears assured, there is further fear and loathing in the shires about the high performance review chaired by Andrew Strauss and, chiefly, talk of a cut to the County Championship.
Could counties have their current 14 red-ball fixtures (down from 16 in 2016) become 12 or even just 10? Nothing has been decided and the review will only provide recommendations for the future domestic structure; any changes would still have to be approved by 12 of the 18 first-class chairs in September.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely to conclude the status quo is working for all and Strauss has gone on record to state that the recent uptick from England’s men in Test cricket has not remotely diminished the need for reform. Thompson, who has sat on the review, said in the past: “We can’t allow red-ball cricket to become diminished any further.” Whatever the next configuration, he is expected to increase centralised promotion of the county competitions to ensure the Hundred isn’t the only shop window.
The global game
Thompson’s tenure comes at a time of existential angst for the sport worldwide. The rise of domestic T20 leagues (including the expansion of the Indian Premier League) and annual global events are shrinking opportunities for bilateral international cricket. Like the extension to Sky’s coverage of English cricket, the future tours programme for the 2023-27 period has been agreed before Thompson’s start date, however, and means the two spheres are vying for players and space. What shape the sport emerges in at the end of this period is the big question. The recent decision by Ben Stokes to retire from ODI cricket, Trent Boult stepping away from his New Zealand contract and South Africa cancelling an ODI series in Australia to stage their new T20 league in January have all highlighted the tension.
The ICC seldom leads on such matters but as the representative of the ECB, one of the more powerful member boards, Thompson is among those charged with forging a balanced, more equitable landscape that prevents cricket from cannibalising itself and protects the primary of Test cricket.
Thompson may also wish to assess England’s central contracts system for the men’s and women’s teams to ensure they adequately reflect this.