‘It would be a mas­sive mis­take to turn our back on the Hun­dred’

 Out­go­ing ECB chair­man de­fends new tour­na­ment and ad­mits crit­i­cism drove him to con­sider re­sign­ing on oc­ca­sions

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Cricket - Ex­clu­sive By Nick Hoult Chief CriCket Cor­re­spon­dent

The Hun­dred

As Colin Graves pre­pares to watch his fi­nal Test as chair­man of the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board, the time feels right for him to sur­vey a five-year ten­ure that has been one of the most tu­mul­tuous in the sport’s re­cent his­tory.

Cen­tral to his legacy is the Hun­dred – the new for­mat launched by the ECB to give it an as­set it owns and can mon­e­tise in fu­ture years from stand­alone broad­cast deals. Covid-19 sab­o­taged the launch this year, but it had al­ready hor­ri­fied the county core, who be­lieve it un­der­mines the ex­ist­ing do­mes­tic struc­ture and will never be prof­itable.

It will be Graves’s most sig­nif­i­cant be­quest if the com­pe­ti­tion goes ahead next year. Tom Harrison, the ECB chief ex­ec­u­tive, in­sisted at a Gov­ern­ment hear­ing the Hun­dred will go ahead but if there are still no mass gath­er­ings at sport­ing events next sum­mer then it will be in doubt again.

“If we turn our back on the Hun­dred, I think the game has made a mas­sive, mas­sive mis­take,” says Graves. “I know there are one or two out there who don’t think we should be play­ing it. I think they are wrong for the wrong rea­sons. They are just look­ing at it per­son­ally and not look­ing at it for the wider game.

“From where I can see, it will go ahead. The broad­cast­ers are ex­cited and all ready to do it. The ex­ec­u­tive are des­per­ate to do it, the Hun­dred board are des­per­ate to do it and, as far as I know, the new chair­man is to­tally be­hind it. With all that go­ing for it, why shouldn’t it go ahead?

“If it doesn’t go ahead the coun­ties aren’t go­ing to get the £1.3mil­lion a year [div­i­dend] and that would put the game in a se­ri­ous po­si­tion. But still peo­ple put a ques­tion mark over it. I think they are say­ing it with an ul­te­rior mo­tive.”

The county game

Graves has been crit­i­cal of the struc­ture of county cricket. He called the Blast a “medi­ocre tour­na­ment” in 2016. He be­lieves county mem­bers have to ac­cept change, float­ing the no­tion that some clubs will need to go part-time, and scrap red-ball cricket, in or­der to sur­vive in the post-Covid en­vi­ron­ment.

“The mes­sage I say to county mem­bers is just look for­ward in­stead of look­ing back,” he says. “The county struc­ture and mem­ber­ship is dif­fer­ent than it was 20-30 years ago. County cricket has a role and is im­por­tant, but don’t just be blink­ered and look at red-ball county cricket.

“It is not about peo­ple turn­ing up with a flask and sand­wiches watch­ing four-day cricket any more. Peo­ple will not like me say­ing that, but it is re­al­ity.

“Peo­ple say I have been anti the ex­ist­ing Blast tour­na­ment. I have not been at all. It is a mas­sive rev­enue-earner for the coun­ties. What I have said is, it has not reached the level of the In­dian Premier League and Big Bash from an au­di­ence or broad­cast point of view. The Blast works for the coun­ties, but in world cricket it is not recog­nised at the same level of the Big Bash or IPL. That is fact.

“This is me talk­ing per­son­ally, but our play­ers play too much cricket in Eng­land in a sum­mer. That is where I would look at re­struc­tur­ing the red-ball game, be­cause you don’t need the quan­tity of cricket. You need qual­ity, but not quan­tity. Yes we have added an ex­tra tour­na­ment, but that is de­signed to bring new crowds in.

“By hav­ing a new broad­cast­ing deal in place, the £106mil­lion loss will af­fect the game but it is not dis­as­trous. We can bear it this year, but if that loss gets worse there could be se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions go­ing for­ward. Next year is cru­cial. We can­not have an­other sea­son be­hind closed doors. It would af­fect in­ter­na­tional cricket dra­mat­i­cally.”

The ICC

Graves had ap­peared cer­tain to fill the va­cant post of chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil un­til re­cently, when the vot­ing process was re­viewed. There is more un­cer­tainty now, but he re­mains in­ter­ested in run­ning.

“I have to be nom­i­nated by other ICC direc­tors. If that hap­pens, and the process has not been de­cided yet, all I have said is I will look at it and see where I am go­ing for­ward,” he says. “That is a mas­sive job. ICC has some big is­sues. It is at a cross­roads. You have some coun­tries run­ning out of money and on the verge of go­ing un­der. We should not let that hap­pen.

“The gov­er­nance needs chang­ing. When you look at ICC, all they are is an events com­pany. That is where it gets its in­come from. With­out that it has noth­ing else. That will be chal­leng­ing in the next two or three years be­cause none of us know when we will be on top of Covid-19. That is the prob­lem.”

The con­tro­ver­sies

Graves de­parts his role cer­tain he did the right thing with the big de­ci­sions, but aware that he was a di­vi­sive fig­ure. His com­ments on the Blast an­gered many coun­ties, while his re­mark that he ex­pected Eng­land to beat a “medi­ocre” West Indies in 2015 sparked not just of­fence, but a back­lash which saw Alas­tair Cook’s side ul­ti­mately de­feated in the Caribbean. Cook him­self noted that Graves had ef­fec­tively “given [West Indies] a team talk”.

There were calls for him to quit in 2018 when he sug­gested that “the younger gen­er­a­tion are just not at­tracted to cricket”, and he also faced pres­sure from then Som­er­set chair­man Andy Nash, who re­signed from the ECB board, along with Sur­rey chair­man Richard Thomp­son, over pay­ments to Glam­or­gan to com­pen­sate for miss­ing out on Test match al­lo­ca­tions. Graves’s re­la­tion­ship with Sur­rey in par­tic­u­lar was fraught, with reg­u­lar clashes over the Hun­dred.

He ad­mits that there were oc­ca­sions when he con­sid­ered his fu­ture. “It has been a dif­fi­cult ride. I did not take this job on to travel around the world, watch Eng­land play cricket, have my free lunches and gin and tonic. I took it on to do the job for the good of the game and I have had a lot of headaches, a lot of dif­fi­cult days.

“There were a cou­ple of times when I have thought about walk­ing away. I thought it is not worth do­ing it be­cause there were stake­hold­ers be­ing mis­chievous who were try­ing to pull the rug from un­der the ECB. My wife, Sharon, on two oc­ca­sions took one look at me and said, ‘Don’t do what you are think­ing’. She said if you walk away they have won.

“I would not do any­thing dif­fer­ent on all the big de­ci­sions or changes we have made. One or two com­ments I have made in the past, maybe at the time I was a bit naive. But you learn by your mis­takes.”

He has some sim­ple ad­vice for

Ian Wat­more, his suc­ces­sor and the first ECB chair­man not to have emerged from the county game. Wat­more’s first act will be to im­ple­ment the cuts needed to cope with more than £100mil­lion losses dur­ing the pan­demic, with jobs set to go at the ECB and coun­ties brac­ing for 20 per cent cuts to their bud­gets next year.

“My ad­vice to Ian is to make the right de­ci­sions for the good of the game,” Graves says. “We will have to look at the whole game again in the next four or five years.

“Once we get back to nor­mal, and we don’t know when that is go­ing to hap­pen, you have to look at ways and means we can run the game with in­vest­ment right across the board on less money than we an­tic­i­pated, be­cause that is what we will end up with.

“By open­ing the role up to an in­de­pen­dent chair­man of the ECB, the only marker I will put down to the board is they have to make sure there are enough peo­ple who un­der­stand what pro­fes­sional cricket is all about and how coun­ties are run. You can­not ig­nore the struc­ture that builds the game.”

The Hun­dred ‘If it doesn’t go ahead the coun­ties aren’t go­ing to get the £1.3mil­lion [div­i­dend] and that would put the game in a se­ri­ous po­si­tion’

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