Why English and Welsh cricket stands at a crossroads

Why English and Welsh cricket stands at a crossroads
Why English and Welsh cricket stands at a crossroads

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - On May 11, the second of a four-day county championship match unfolded in front of my eyes at the Utilita Bowl, Southampton. This is the home of Hampshire County Cricket Club. On a rare sunny day, there seemed to be around 600 other people watching, a majority in the members’ area.

Hampshire CCC is unusual in that it is one of three out of the 18 county cricket clubs in England and Wales that are not subject to member votes. It is owned by Hampshire Sport & Leisure Holdings, a private limited company which oversees sporting and leisure activities on the site. Its former chair, who was instrumental in saving the county from insolvency in 2001, owns 60 percent of the shares.

By coincidence, Hampshire’s opponents were Durham County Cricket Club, another county not subject to member votes. It is constituted as a Community Interest Company, a form of social enterprise. Northamptonshire County Cricket Club is the third one not to be subject to member votes, being constituted as a private company limited by guarantee.

The scene at Southampton would have been replicated at the other five county championship matches taking place on May 11. At the same time in Kolkata, the Knight Riders and the Mumbai Indians were preparing to play the 60th match of the 2024 Indian Premier League franchise competition. Average spectator attendance in the IPL is estimated to be 30,000. These two different models of promoting cricket may be about to coalesce, if proposed changes to the landscape in England and Wales come to fruition.

The changes center on The Hundred, a format of cricket introduced by the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2021. The two teams each play a single innings of 100 deliveries, divided into 20 overs of five deliveries, with two overs bowled from each end alternately. Each match is scheduled to last for two-and-a-half hours. Eight men’s teams and eight women’s teams comprise separate competitions with all matches played back-to-back on the same day at the same venue. The whole of August is allocated to The Hundred to the exclusion of other formats.

Ever since its inception, the tournament has been divisive on several levels. First, it has segregated the 18 counties into those who host The Hundred and those who do not. The eight participating counties are Glamorgan, Hampshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. However, the teams do not carry the county names, since the concept was to create city-based teams using existing county facilities. Agreement to progress with the tournament depended upon the support of excluded counties. This was achieved by the ECB’s offer to pay each county £1.3 million ($1.6 million) for their backing.

At a second level, there are differing opinions about the opportunity cost of this funding. The ECB receives around 75 percent of its income from the sale of broadcasting rights, a substantial part of which relates to Test-match cricket. Critics argue that using this money to support and develop a format which represents an existential threat to Test cricket is willful. They argue that the funds should be deployed in producing players for the longer rather than shorter formats.

On a third level, it is argued that the focus on eight counties, instead of 18, will hasten the demise of some of the latter, several of whom are in parlous financial circumstances. It is understood that, in the last two years, five counties have received financial help from the ECB. Overall debt levels in county cricket may be in the order of £200 million, some of this being incurred in stadium development designed to host international matches. In addition, operational costs have increased sharply in recent years.

It is in this context that the ECB’s current proposal to sell off 49 percent of equity in The Hundred has great attraction. The balance of 51 percent would be owned by the host county, which can decide to retain it all or sell part or all of it. The proceeds of the 49 percent are to be distributed to counties according to an undisclosed formula. The ECB requested that counties agreed to a “direction of travel” by May 10.

A divergence of opinion has emerged amongst the counties about the proposed model for distributing the spoils, split broadly between those who host The Hundred and those who do not. Needless to say, both sides appear to want more. In terms of numbers, some reports assert that the ECB’s sale of 49 percent equity might raise some $507 million (£400 million) for distribution, enough to salve the cash problems of a few counties. It is understandable that the non-hosting counties fear that they could get sold down the river.

There is already a fear that they are becoming marginalized by not being a host of The Hundred format. If the money raised by the ECB falls well short of the $507 million, then their financial problems may not be solved and their marginalization exacerbated. There are also legitimate concerns over governance and scheduling issues once private owners become involved. At this stage, the nature of private investors is unknown. It would be no surprise if Indian franchise owners show interest. However, it is reasonable to assume that they would not be content with either a minority stake or minority voice.

Cricket in England and Wales is at a watershed moment, caught in a maze of alternative possibilities, each one of which has unknown consequences. The ECB, under previous management, was the architect of this moment, through its introduction of The Hundred, which is contracted to run until 2028. In a twist of fate, it is now regarded as a medium for escape from impecunity. The alternative to equity sale is to do nothing and watch the system crumble. Equity sale will be tantamount to privatizing a part of that system. It was difficult to escape the feeling at Southampton that I was watching one part of that system which is heading for trauma.

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