Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How the ECB gave two fingers to their landlords at Lord's Cricket Ground


Rhetoric and reality in the ECB brand

Dabblers in the arcane arts of Brand management know that a brand is not necessarily valued as the owners of the brand like to think that it should be. A brand's value is the sum of the perceptions of all of those that relate to it. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) would like you to think that the pillars of the ECB brand are:

Effective leadership and governance
A vibrant domestic game
Enthusing participation and following especially among young people
Successful England teams

(It's on the ECB website if you don't believe me)

Those of us perceiving their brand more objectively would see the reality:

"Leadership" which gave us the chaos of the England captaincy.
"Governance" which gave us Stanford.
A domestic game which is overblown, unaffordable and of poor quality
"Enthusing participation" which gave us international cricket thrown off free to air TV.
An England team which fails - or at best flatters to deceive.


As we know the ECB is a self-perpetuating oligarchy absolutely impervious to change - other than changes which in some way "benefit" those that vote at its top table meetings - basically the eighteen county chairmen. It is this reality which explains most of the damaging decisions, from Stanford to the Sky TV deal, of recent years. And it is the only explanation why, post Stanford, Giles Clarke and David Collier held on to their jobs despite the clamour from most of the thinking world of England cricket supporters for them to go.

The ECB turns on the MCC

The ECB's decision-making frequently defies logic and is the antithesis of good governance. And just when you thought that it might be safe to go back in the water the shark that is the ECB decides to turn viciously on one of its own - their landlord at Lord's the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Now the perception of the MCC is like that of the ECB some distance from the reality. MCC is seen as being a fusty institution populated by ageing old buffers and clinging on to the relic that once they were the most powerful force in world cricket by far. The elitism, the long waiting list, the red and yellow ties and (much worse) blazers seem to communicate that the brand of the club is struggling to get into the twentieth century - let alone the twenty-first.

There is some truth in the charge that the MCC is clinging on to its past. The fact that the "Laws of cricket" are still nominally the province of a British private members club is a silly anachronism. Similarly the MCC's pompous claim to be the guardian of the "Spirit of Cricket" is neo-colonial and arrogant - as well as arrant nonsense. The fact that the MCC spends hundreds of thousands of pounds of its members money on its absurd and self-appointed "World Cricket Committee" - a talking shop and dining club for senior ex players like Tony Lewis, Geoff Boycott, Rahul Dravid, Alec Stewart, Steve Waugh and Mike Gatting - is a ludicrous hangover from the days when MCC really did run world cricket. But ignore for a moment all this hubris. What the MCC does supremely well is run the finest cricket ground in the world.

Lord's is Sans Pareil

My visits this year to the Riverside and to Sophia Gardens completed my full set of seeing Test cricket in every ground in England (and now Wales). I have, over the years, also been lucky enough to see England play (and surprisingly often win) in Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and South Africa. I've been to some amazing grounds - the massive MCG, the charming Adelaide, the scary National stadium in Karachi, the delightful Basin Reserve, the deafening Wankhede
in Mumbai and Cape Town's marvellous Newlands amongst them. But it is not national pride that convinces me that, home or away, there is nowhere to touch Lord's. At home Lord's is by far the biggest ground and by far the best equipped with the best drainage and ground care systems. It has the best seating (a lot under cover) the best catering and the best sight lines for spectators. It has a world class museum, an excellent shop - and so on. And architecturally it is beyond criticism - the Media Centre, the Mound Stand and the Grandstand are fine and, in sports stadia, unequalled examples of modern architecture - and the wonderful and well-persevered Victorian pavilion is a gem. And note I haven't even mentioned the heritage and the history.

Over the years I have with pleasure taken guests to Lord's for Test matches - guests from India, New Zealand, Australia and the West Indies all of whom have loved every minute of the experience. The place is full of history - but it is a modern ground par excellence as well. The MCC is rightfully proud of the achievement that is Lord's. But, as ever, the club is not standing still and detailed plans exist to take the capacity up from 29,000 to nearly 40,000 - double the capacity of any other British cricket ground and nearly treble that of some.

The ECB turns on Lord's

Whatever you may feel about the hubris of the MCC nobody can surely deny that Lord's is England's finest venue by far for cricket - nobody, that is, except the apparatchiks of the ECB who clearly don't believe this - or if they do have other agendas to pursue. In 2012 Lord's has no Test match for the first time in living memory. In 2013 there is a Test match against New Zealand in the run up to The Ashes but (would you believe it?) no Ashes Test match at Lord's (the Queen will have to go to Durham). And so it goes on. Whilst The Oval is guaranteed a Test match every year for the foreseeable future no such guarantee exists for Lord's. This means that the MCC's development plans for the ground will have to be put on hold - any chance that we might get a ground in England offering Australian style ground spectator capacity (perhaps at low Australian level ticket prices) is effectively abandoned. True MCC might still get a Test match in 2012 and an Ashes match in 2013 - but only if they put together a sufficiently attractive financial bid. The "home of cricket" may get egg all over its face if other grounds, maybe backed as Cardiff was in 2009 by funny money from some local government slush fund or by the immense personal wealth of a high roller like Rod Bransgrove at Hampshire who would love to bankroll an Ashes match at the Rose Bowl - and to hell with Lord's.

Why?

In trying to understand the ECB we always have to ask the question Why? - and the answer is usually the same. Because the County Chairmen perceive that a particular course of action is in their interests. Vote for Giles Clarke - done! Vote to reject a sensible proposal for a nine-team franchise Twenty20 tournament in favour of the inane eighteen county status quo - done! And so on. So the ECB's facile commitment to take Test cricket around Britain will get the nod - even if it means we have Test matches at Cardiff rather than Trent Bridge and now Durham rather than Lord's. Logical - of course not. Corrupt - I couldn't possibly comment, but you may think so!

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