Tom Harrison brought in the money but left cricket smaller, poorer and divided | Andy Bull
Not so long ago someone put a plastic turd in an envelope and posted it to Tom Harrison at the England and Wales Cricket Board. Think of it as a parting gift from the disaffected of English cricket, to go with Harrison’s share of the £2.1m in executive bonuses the ECB paid out this year. Harrison, who has a background in sales and marketing, is someone who imagines he would be able to win anyone over if they would only sit down and listen to him for 15 minutes one-on-one over a coffee. He seemed utterly nonplussed to discover there are people beyond the four walls of ECB headquarters who might feel differently about it.
The media release announcing Harrison’s farewell as the ECB chief executive ran to just under 1,000 wordsand you can’t but wonder how much of it was his own work. It was half as long again as the one they issued when Joe Root stepped down as England captain last month after a record number of Tests. If you were being kind you would say that’s a reflection of the outsize role Harrison has taken on in the game in these past seven years. Captains, chairmen and coaches have come and gone, Harrison has clung on and somehow become one of the defining figures of this era of English cricket. He has achieved a prominence entirely beyond that of his predecessor, David Collier.
The statement talks about “Tom’s leadership” during the pandemic. It mentions “Inspiring Generations”, “All Stars” and “Dynamos” and his desire to make the game “an extraordinary force for good”, his commitment to “tackling discrimination” and how he has overseen an era of “record investment in cricket” with “England Men and Women both crowned World Champions”. It would have been an embarrassingly fulsome statement to deliver to a bathroom mirror, let alone send out to the world’s media.
Oddly, the statement doesn’t mention the Hundred, even when it touches on “the return of live cricket to free-to-air TV with the BBC”. Strange that a man who would lay claim to so much, including those two World Cups, would forget to mention his signature achievement. It’s almost as if he didn’t want to be associated with it. It was the Hundred, and its cack-handed launch, that caused English cricket’s ongoing culture wars. It split the sport just as neatly as it did the County Championship, which is now played largely in April, May and September.
The Hundred compromised English first-class cricket and alienated a lot of people who love the sport, all for the sake, Harrison says, of safeguarding its future by making it less reliant on the TV revenues generated by international cricket. Curiously, it was his ability to make the most of those very same TV revenues that got him the job in 2014. He was considered an outsider for the role when Collier left but was a unanimous pick because the panel believed his background at IMG Media and ESPN Star Sports meant he would be in a good position to negotiate their rights deals. They were right.
The ECB made £1.1bn from the last round of negotiations in 2017. That was Harrison’s real achievement. It doesn’t take 1,000 words to sum up his tenure, but nine zeroes. That money benefited everyone involved in the game, from the village groundsman who got a grant for a new mower on up, through the counties who live off what the ECB hands out to them, all the way to the England men’s and women’s players on central contracts, some of them now being paid a retainer not to play for their country. A lot of people got fatter off the back of it. But it still feels as though the sport has somehow grown smaller, poorer and more divided at the same time.
Profits grew. Participation slumped. The latest figures show it dropped by 25% in the first five years Harrison was in the job. And that was before the pandemic, when it plummeted again. The interim ECB chair, Martin Darlow, allowed himself to be quoted as saying “when the pandemic struck it was Tom’s leadership that brought the game together and saved us from the worst financial crisis the sport has ever faced”. There you go, between the Yorkshire racism scandal, the DCMS select committee hearings, the aborted tour to Pakistan and the abject form of the men’s Test team the past year of English cricket has felt like one long garbage fire. But the bottom line was fine, so it’s bonuses all round.