A recent interview with the England board’s CEO Tom Harrison was a reflection of the ECB’s priorities – and the issues it would like swept out of sight
On TMS during the second day of The Oval Test, in the oft-repeated conversation on why bowlers rarely captain, Graeme Swann said of his former captain Andrew Strauss that he’d “take a bullet for him” and that he was “a natural leader”.
Later that afternoon, in a rare interview, this time with Jonathan Agnew during the lunch break, ECB chief executive Tom Harrison praised Strauss as a man possessing absolute “integrity” and a shared “belief in our [the ECB’s] vision for the game”.
Harrison was hardly going to scythe down a man he had personally hired – not that he’s sentimental. Even the sober Daily Telegraph described Harrison as the ECB’s “hatchet man” after the appointment, in the wake of which he rapidly dismissed Paul Downton, coach Peter Moores, and, as every man and his dog knows, Kevin Pietersen. “It was a day I shan’t forget,” he said of the KP doomsday, before describing the cull as a “necessary” act in the determination to stick to a plan.
In the cosy cake-and-tea room of the TMS commentary box, Agnew was never going to press him as firmly as a foaming Jeremy Paxman might have done. However, he did gently prod for more on KP, and although he did not squirm like a Westminster politician shown the receipts for a moat extension, Harrison perhaps did adjust his seat slightly, and then reach for the wonderful mixed metaphor of needing to “grasp a couple of nettles” before saying something about getting “the right people on the bus”.
That bus has no seat left for KP, but there is standing space for Moores, who Harrison sees as still being involved. Perhaps he could collect the tickets on this magical ECB ride?
What does seem clear, despite the mangled imagery of passengers waving nettles at KP and Downton out of a double-decker window, is that the bus stops for no one unless Harrison taps the driver, Strauss, on the shoulder. Harrison acknowledges that the British sporting public have an opinion, and tend to stick by it. Harrison reiterated that he too had an opinion, and a plan, and beware the fool who steps out in front of the ECB bus.
First destination for the express service is domestic cricket. “How do we create a domestic structure which improves the game?” asks Harrison. Before answering his own question he then asked a few more “how to’s” – to do with upping participation, boosting the women’s game, getting more club players on pitches at weekends, and strengthening the schools programme. Scant on detail – and perhaps fair enough, as every club cricketer I know in the country would tell Harrison about how to change league cricket – Harrison looked from the ECB bus and pointed at the England team “shop window”. This window metaphor was for him a measure of the national team’s success, and how their performance was directly related to the achieve-ability of the domestic cricket challenges he had just outlined. A gleaming shop window with a winning team on display certainly makes the ECB’s job a lot easier.
Once the ECB bus had passed by this cricket High Street, we approached the cinema, where Agnew rang the bell as he wanted to see the latest cricket-documentary-protest-blockbuster,Death of a Gentleman. Harrison swiftly told Strauss to put his foot down and drive on. “I haven’t seen it,” was his dismissal when Agnew mentioned the flick.
Harrison then tried to explain, and defend, the economic workings of the ICC and the Big Three. He asked Agnew to “imagine a world without India involved”, and said that he truly believed they might have left international cricket to the rest of the world, which, considering India’s 80% share in revenue, would have been sat on the street begging with cap in hand – my metaphor this time, not Harrison’s, although he did finish this part of the interview by describing India as an “economic animal”.
Then the ECB bus powered on, looping around the cricket-in-the-Olympics question – Harrison said he was considering the stop, but that the destination would be discussed back at the depot – before the conductor once again walked the aisles checking tickets, sternly dismissing the now out-of-date stubs presented to him by the Associate nations on their way to the World Cup in 2019. They were booted off the bus, but told their tickets could be used at T20s. There was lenience from the inspector to Ireland, Scotland and Afghanistan, who had somehow procured a discount pass, along with the “South Asian diaspora” in the US, whom Harrison identified as potential future passengers.
Perhaps this ECB bus is better described as a highway coach, with the loyal and immaculately turned-out Strauss as the focused driver zipping along the asphalt and skilfully avoiding the potholes until a diversion along the B roads: Agnew questioned whether all 18 county cricket stops were really needed. Although Harrison tried to avoid shortening the route, he was probably looking back down the bus and wondering why there were so many empty seats.
There were a couple of pull-ins to the services – T20, social media, how to attract the 16-24 age group – before Agnew fiddled with the on-board TV, only to find that he couldn’t tune in to a terrestrial channel until at least 2019.
Just before the bus pulled into the station, Harrison stood up and organised a whip round for his trusty driver, Strauss, a man who seems unlikely to get lost with Harrison on board. Whether their destination is where English cricket actually wants to arrive at is another matter.