Funding cut threat must sharpen ECB’s thinking with finances already tight | Andy Bull

Back to the shambles, then. No, not the Ashes tour. This is from the other side of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s Rubik’s Cube of problems.

Six weeks ago the ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, was asked why any of the many people who have heard him and his predecessors talk over and again about their renewed efforts to address racism in the sport ought to take this latest ECB scheme seriously. What was it, exactly, that was going to make the new action plan any more effective than the Clean Bowl Racism campaign the ECB launched in 2000? Or the South Asian Action Plan in 2018? Why was this step forward for Yorkshire going to take them further than the ones the club promised when they launched anti-racism projects in 1992, 1999 or 2015?

All Harrison was really able to offer was his own say-so. “I know that we are in the dock for words, words, words, blah, blah, blah, no action – that kind of thing,” Harrison said. “What we are trying to say here is that this is action-orientated.” Given the latest set of 12 actions includes a few that he had already promised the ECB would deliver under the 11-step-programme it set up four years ago, it wasn’t hugely reassuring. The game has never suffered a lack of good intentions, just a lack of good outcomes.

Now we have a better answer. The digital, culture, media and sport committee’s new report on racism recommends that the government should tie any future public funding for the ECB to its making demonstrable progress in anti-racism, and that the select committee should help monitor that progress by asking the ECB to report back to it each quarter. Whether those recommendations are actually adopted is another question, but the report highlighted a promise from the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, that the government “would be closely monitoring the ECB’s progress” and take “further measures” if needed.

It’s true, the ECB really has ended up in a position where it has put this Tory party in a position of moral authority. Who knew there was high ground in the gutter?

There are flaws in the committee’s plan. The ECB receives about £2.5m annually from Sport England. But most of that goes towards developing grassroots cricket, which means that cutting the funding would only exacerbate the problems it is asking the ECB to address. But the threat will certainly sharpen its thinking, and help hurry along some of the counties who pushed back against its more radical plans to deal with racism at the all-game meeting last November. Harrison said himself he was frustrated they hadn’t been able to go further.

The ECB has also benefited from a lot of bailout money, most recently its share of the £300m given to “summer sports” last year. And a little more scrutiny on exactly how it’s being used would be a good thing. (You can find a more in-depth look at its accounts, if you’re interested, at the Side On View cricket blog).

The latest set of financial statements from 2020-21 show that the ECB has blown through £68m in reserves, and now has only £2m left. Most of it apparently went on organising The Hundred, a tournament that a large number of people who actually pay to watch the game seem to hate, and which, because it has taken over the middle of the summer, now seems to be the single biggest obstacle to rearranging the first-class cricket schedule to better serve the needs of the ailing Test team.

Trent Rockets’ Alex Hales walk on to the pitch at the Oval last summer in The Hundred
Trent Rockets’ Alex Hales walk on to the pitch at the Oval last summer in The Hundred, a competition the ECB has lavished money on. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

That £68m might have come in handy as a rainy-day fund if the sport had ever found itself facing a crisis beyond its control, like, oh I don’t know, a global pandemic. Instead the ECB found itself drawing on public money to help it along. Of course it took its own measures to mitigate the losses too. In 2020 it announced it was making staff cutbacks. And the statements show it did cut the number of development staff by almost a fifth, from 101 to 82. (The grassroots, which would be further threatened by those cuts in Sport England funding, are already suffering).

Oddly, though, the overall headcount actually increased from 379 to 416. That was because of (yes, you guessed) The Hundred. It wasn’t just that it had to hire players and coaching staff, it also expanded the commercial, communications and events team (from 57 to 82). The upshot was that ECB’s payroll costs actually rose by £6.6m during the first year of the pandemic, which means wages and salaries are currently outstripping the total amount (£38m) the ECB spends on grassroots cricket. Again, a large part of that rise is down to the hires made for The Hundred. But not all of it. Aggregate boardroom pay rose by 11% and topped £1m for the first time. As a footnote in the accounts explains, however, these rising costs were offset by furlough funds received from HMRC.

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That 11% rise was despite Harrison’s own well-publicised pay cut, (from £580,000 to £512,000). Fortunately for him it seems that’s likely to be offset too, by his share of the £2.1m “long term incentive plan”, which becomes payable this year “provided the employee remains in full-time employment” at the due date. It has been widely reported that Harrison will step down at some time in the next few months, which is one reason why he has been able to hold on to his job during this rolling omnishambles. Anyone want to bet on which side of the due date he’ll make good on his promise?


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