‘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
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.”
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.”
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’