Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Dear Mr Bradshaw

Five short years ago the nation was enthralled as England and Australia fought a titanic battle for The Ashes culminating is a nerve-wracking but, for England, successful outcome at The Oval Test match. The final day of that match achieved record television viewing figures of 8.4 million free to air on Channel 4 and there was no doubt that cricket in the United Kingdom received an enormous boost from these events. In 2009 we again had an enthralling Ashes series but by now live television coverage of international cricket in Britain had been with News International’s subsidiary “Sky Television” for four years requiring a subscription of around £600 per year to be seen. Not surprisingly, despite a cricket match of great tension and excitement last August, the live television viewing figures were less than a quarter of what they had been in 2005. In November 2009 an independent report into “listed events” led by broadcaster David Davies recommended that the Ashes join the free-to-air list. We now have the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) response to this proposal.

The ECB’s “Statement on Listed events” is a statement of such disingenuousness that it demands the most robust of responses. But in a way this long and self-centered attack on Mr Davies’s sensible proposals is helpful because it reveals what some of us close to the game have known for some time – that cricket in these islands is not in safe hands under the inept direction of the ECB. The ECB says that “…placing the home Ashes Test match series on List A would bring about a devastating collapse in the entire fabric of cricket in England and Wales from the playground to the Test match arena” – an astonishing admission of the Board’s governance failure since 2005. It is worth reiterating the point that only five years ago “The Ashes” were on free-to-air television. Over those years, we are now informed, the ECB has placed itself in a position that it is only by continuing the arrangements with Sky that a “collapse” in the “fabric” of English cricket can be averted!

The ECB narrowly avoided placing itself even more in hock to questionable commercial interests when its plans to establish a long-term arrangement with Texas billionaire Allen Stanford were brought to an abrupt end when the American was taken into custody on a fraud-related charge by the FBI last June. The Stanford affair was further evidence that rather than address the very real cost issues faced by cricket in England and Wales in a responsible and courageous way the ECB would prefer to seek funding from any source – however questionable – to try and keep afloat a ship that has been holed below the waterline for a long time. And in cricket as elsewhere he who pays the piper calls the tune – which has led, and will continue to lead, to crowded fixture lists, meaningless matches and player “burn-out” just to provide television events for which advertising can be sold by Sky.

Professional domestic cricket in England and Wales is one of the principal recipients of funding from the ECB and the £137.4m “probable loss” (from “The Ashes” leaving Sky) over four years 2014-2017, alleged in the ECB’s statement, is coincidentally not far away as a sum from the approximately £36m that the ECB hands out to the eighteen first class counties every year. The counties in their turn have a wage bill for players of roughly the same amount. This funding shores up a county system of great historical significance and nostalgic and emotional resonance – but one which is not only unaffordable but wholly unsuitable to the sport in the 21st Century – and in particular to the needs of the England team. Neither Australia nor any other of England’s international rivals has such a bloated and underperforming professional domestic structure as the English county system. The case for a far smaller and better second tier structure for English cricket (international cricket is the first tier) is overwhelming. If the ECB’s income is reduced as a result of the move back to free-to-air television of “The Ashes” it ought to be a blessing in disguise for English cricket. Not only will the numbers able to see international matches return to the level that they were as recently as 2005 but it may force the long-delayed and vitally necessary root and branch review of professional cricket in England and Wales. The outcome might be that the governance of the game in future is not vested in an ECB board overwhelmingly made up of County cricket officials (who bring obvious vested interests to maintain the status quo with them). It might also mean that we move to a more manageable and far higher quality second tier of perhaps six or eight teams (the Australians have six and the Indian Premier League has eight) which would be commercially viable and attractive both for Twenty20 and for the longer forms of the game. And which would be far more focused on being primarily the feeding ground for England at an international level and far less an employment opportunity for players from overseas who are not qualified to play for England.

I hope that the ECB’s response to your Department’s consultation document will paradoxically provide you with ample evidence to endorse rather than to turn down David Davies’s proposals re the televising of “The Ashes”. The case the ECB makes is flimsy and wholly unbalanced and it is worthy of nothing more than rejection out of hand. I hope also that both the tone and hypocritical content of the ECB’s response will inspire you to commission a proper parliamentary enquiry into the governance of cricket in England – not least because, via Sport England, substantial public funds are passed to the ECB and represent the major source of their expenditure on grassroots and community cricket!

Yours Sincerely

Paddy Briggs

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