How English cricket needs to change

The ICEC report and how the ECB deal with their media partners

Ian Botham was so upset at the recent ICEC report that he threw it on the floor. Quite an effort for a pdf. So it is possible he had it printed out, which means he also hates the environment. He was upset as he hadn't been interviewed.

Of course, 4000 non-Ian Bothams were talked to as part of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. And they saw many problems, many of which I have discussed since coming to the UK. This has been a fading game in this country for a long time. Ian Botham should be more famous than he is in his own country. He was a cricket legend, but while cricket still plays a part in English society, it is really only in a couple of areas.

And while that isn't Botham's fault, it started happening in the 1980s onwards.

Essentially, cricket in England has been at war between the elite part of society and the working class. And like most battles between those with and without money, I'll let you guess who won. There is no reason for that to happen, cricket started as a street game. But whether it be old lord's members fighting for underarm because overarm bowling was too fast for them, or amateurs getting preference over professionals, it has always existed in English cricket.

I should point out that there are a few cricket nations’ histories out there with this as their backstory. But England's is the strongest and most documented, if you haven't read Duncan Stone's book, it is worth your time.

This was a report that was needed for the entire game. There had been issues that just seemed to be passed over year after year and had Azeem Rafiq not stood up you wonder if anything would have changed.

A lot of the major parts of this ICEC report have been covered already. State school cricket almost doesn't exist. My sons didn't start playing it until they were year four - and that was because of an outside group called platform cricket. Most kids just don't play it much at all.

Some former players who didn't throw it on the floor have spoken out about changes that could be implemented, and you can already see that some really common-sense ideas are starting to take place.

The saddest thing is that so many people in the UK had bad experiences of the sport they loved.

But I want to focus on something slightly out of the ICEC report, but still plays a part. Who does the ECB partner with? BBC were given exclusive rights to the radio coverage of UK cricket a few months back. This year it was an open secret among TMS employees that they won the rights without the ECB asking for an official tender from any other broadcasters in the UK.

I think TMS should keep commentating the cricket, they have done it since 1957, and they have an incredible audience. But it is worth noting many of the people who work for the show do not see themselves as a cricket program. Several people from TMS have talked about themselves more as a light entertainment show aimed at a particular market. And that is fine and should be encouraged and cultivated for years.

But I also know many cricket fans in the UK that don't like that show, or feel included by it. And that's ok, because, unlike TV, radio doesn't pay much. (The best way to tell that is that no one is quoting the amount paid by the BBC for this ECB package, where TV deal rights amounts are splashed right across the articles.)

So radio should be a way to hook new fans in. Maybe that is with talkSPORT, or LBC, or whoever wanted it really. Cricket Australia has multiple radio partners. The idea is taken from Australian Rules Football, and it means that if you turn on a radio station during a match, chances are you hear their product. That is the position you want cricket to be in.

Now I do contract work for talkSPORT, and you might think, well of course he wants this. Except I was writing about this a decade ago. Cricket needs more voices, not fewer. It needs to grab people with as many options as possible, Not give it a one size fits all especially as that is what the ICEC report is talking about. Cricket isn't one thing in the UK.

And yet the BBC were given the rights without even one other station getting to pitch for it? If the ECB were serious about broadening cricket's reach, why do this?

The ECB have previously over choosing broadcasters they have relationships with rather than trying to broaden their reach. Like they keep reupping their SKY deals early. Last summer they went with them again.

SKY is a brilliant broadcaster of cricket, and I have no issue with them getting the rights.

But a year on from those rights TNT - who are a major sports broadcaster in the US - took over BT Sports in the UK. Many people in the industry had known this was coming. So, um, why sign again with SKY when the best option is at least to watch them battle it out? Or even just let SKY think they would.

Not to mention Amazon, who keep making series of the Test and are already buying up cricket rights overseas. What about the free-to-air channels in the UK with small audiences, is there not a way to build them into a deal as well? From a fan perspective, I would prefer it to be all on SKY. But from a reach for cricket, is it not better to promote it as far and wide as possible and not just keep signing automatically with the same company?

This is not even the first time SKY has reupped early to get a deal with the ECB. It is a regular occurrence. This is from 2012 for the 2013 season.

The following year BT Sport started spending huge on football. And again the ECB already had a deal and could not cash in on this new TV war.

And I want you to look at two different lines here, "Sky Sports, the only serious bidder", and "but with little competition from other networks".

That is from both articles a decade apart. I have found other places saying the same thing. There is no competition. But if that is the case, why is the ECB and SKY rushing these deals through a year earlier all the time? Surely you either start the renegotiating plan as late as possible, hoping someone will find the money. Or you do them even earlier when someone else might actually have cash. The timing of these deals, and the BBC one doesn't make any sense.

But even if I would do radio differently and the TV deal might not have been maximised, the issue here is that these are cosy deals between partners. The entire point of the ICEC report is that cricket needs to move beyond that thinking.

Let's go to the other thing that annoys me the most. I want to see all Ben Stokes sixes in Tests. Hell, even just a bunch of them over his career from England. Just want a supercut of sixes from the sixiest man in Tests.

What can I find? Some from Lord's? A county game? The World Cup final? And his Headingley knock. All great. If I scroll down further I might also find someone who has confused sixes with fours. But that is the closest I can find to Ben Stokes sixes. One of the most famous players on the planet. English cricket's main hero. And I can't even find a supercut of his sixes.

If I search for Nikola Jokic's passes there are 30 minutes of his best passes, a collection of his best from one season, 5 more minutes of his passes and then seven more minutes of his passes. That is followed by a video where they break down with video if he is the best passer ever, a collection of more passes, and then slow-mo passes.

Why do I find Joker on YouTube? Because NBA fans are allowed to make these videos. Cricket fans - even those who do it not for profit - are not.

If you were to cut together a collection of Ben Stokes sixes right now and put them up, you would likely get a copyright strike.

What cricket could do - and not just England - is say to all fans, you can put as much social media content up as possible as long as you link to our broadcast partners. Or allow us to monetise it via YouTube ads. They could make more money and get more promotions. At the moment, the only one making money out of this seems to be copyright lawyers.

They can go further too. England use a company called NV play to record every single ball in cricket. Why can't we as fans pay to watch them? Or a highlights package of every single ball in a Joe Root hundred or Jimmy Anderson spell. Stop giving us your idea of highlights and let us do what we want.

I have been writing about this for a decade. And in 2019 I put up a Twitter thread about it. Someone called Tony Singh reached out through an ECB friend of mine to ask if they could chat with me about it. I said yes, but never heard from him.

Tony Singh, Tony Singh, where do I remember that name from? Oh, that is right. He is the person who gave the BBC the radio rights without tendering to another company.

Does this mean Tony Singh is incompetent or bad at his job? Probably not. I am sure the BBC put him under pressure to sign the deal (it's great for them), but why not take it to full tender, or look at growing the game? Especially in this current environment. Or even wait until the Ashes comes along and either talkSPORT or LBC or some random millionaire with a radio license gets hooked?

On the TV stuff, Singh was part of the team to get SKY the rights, which is far more interesting as he was, in fact, a former BT Sport employee. Now maybe being an insider he knew that TNT Sport as it is now called would not start spending money on cricket. He is the expert.

What I don't understand is a board that has just said they want to diversify cricket has gone out of its way not to do that via online highlights or radio broadcasts. Opening the game up to new markets is the entire point of the Hundred. And that came out of generations of mismanagement by people running English cricket.

The ICEC report has bigger issues than radio rights of copyright strikes on cricket fans’ accounts. But these things all come from the same place. English cricket's always been run like a private member's club, it is why global cricket has the same issues,  and the fact that no one ever brings up their draconian copyright nonsense nor questions their TV/Radio rights is part of the problem.

You want people to be involved in cricket. Asking 4000 people about their experiences is a good start. But how you sell and pick your partners is part of it.

The ICEC report proves cricket needs to be treated better in England, this is the time to do something different, not keep following the same paths.

I understand that I have essentially said that English cricket needs to Bazball itself and that some people may want to throw this article down to the ground in disgust. But even if how cricket is run in the UK works for you, the real question is, does it work for everyone?