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9 February 2022updated 25 Jul 2022 1:42pm

English cricket is in a deep crisis that the ritual sacking of a few coaches won’t fix

If England's Ashes defeat tells us anything, it's that the whole system needs reform.

By Jonathan Liew

One by one, and with a sense of gathering chaos, the dominoes began to fall. Aides, advisers, middle managers: culled, or going of their own accord. The rumour factories of social media glowed red-hot with briefings, counter-briefings, snippets of intelligence. Who would be next? Could the whole edifice come tumbling down?

Not the government, of course, but English cricket, which is undergoing its own ritual purgation in the wake of an entirely self-made crisis. It is a month since England’s men capitulated in a 4-0 defeat to Australia in the Ashes, a performance that has now caused director of cricket Ashley Giles, head coach Chris Silverwood and batting coach Graham Thorpe all to lose their jobs in quick succession.

This in itself was no bad thing. England’s worst Ashes batting performance (by average) since 1890 was probably not the greatest endorsement of their batting coach. Silverwood’s eclectic selections and bizarre insistence on finding “positives” betrayed a scorched, exhausted mind. Giles, the man who appointed Silverwood, tried to explain that it was the whole system that needed fixing rather than individuals. Curiously enough, arguing that it didn’t matter who did his job did not help him keep it.

In a way, though, the departing Giles had a point. It’s tempting to regard the mess at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) as one essentially generated by events: defeat in the men’s and women’s Ashes, the sudden and shattering impact of Azeem Rafiq’s allegations and the systemic racism he experienced at Yorkshire. The comfort here is that if the problems are discrete, then so are the solutions. Let a few heads roll. Tell people you’re sorry. Throw some money at the Test team. Win a big series. Set up some advisory bodies and diversity initiatives.

[See also: The Yorkshire Cricket Club scandal shows that racism remains entrenched and insidious]

But the issues here go deeper than one abominably managed series or a temporary perception problem. For various reasons the ECB is currently without a chairman, a coach, a director of men’s cricket and a chief selector. And yet amid this landslide, somehow one man has heroically managed to cling to the rock face. With dirt under his fingernails and a grave, wounded expression, chief executive Tom Harrison briefly faced the media on 4 February to argue that he alone was the man to lead English cricket out of the crisis that had fermented on his watch. “I’m not running away,” insisted Harrison, who has spent seven years in the job. “I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing for English cricket.”

Any of this sound familiar to you? Look, guys, I understand your anger. I get it, and I’ll fix it. We’ve put a process in place and we must wait for that process to conclude. My staff have done some terrible things without my knowledge. Yes, I was present. But had I realised cricket was a racist sport, I would never have agreed to run it. I was ambushed by an Ashes series.

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Like the increasingly preposterous Boris Johnson, Harrison has resolved to brazen out a situation that would have swept away lesser men. Like Johnson, there are few questions that he cannot answer with a lavish recital of his successes: in white-ball cricket, England’s men and women have both won World Cups, while the launch of the Hundred competition yielded record crowds and impressive TV audiences.

But the similarities are more than superficial. In a way, Johnson’s government has become an exemplar of how power operates in this country: with snake-oil charm, a relentless focus on headlines and PR, and an arrogant aversion to scrutiny and accountability, and often the truth itself. Above all, it offers a blizzard of distortion and distraction and spending pledges and bite-size slogans that creates the impression of progress while obscuring the basic aim of the exercise: the retention of power, along with its abundant culture of perks, patronage and personal enrichment.

[See also: Football cryptocurrencies herald a dystopian future where fandom isn’t free]

Certainly Harrison, a mediocre county cricketer who would later make his fortune in the sports marketing business, has enriched himself plenty. Along with a salary of more than £500,000, in April he is due to claim his share of an executives’ bonus pot worth £2.1m, despite presiding over dozens of pandemic-related redundancies, significant cuts to development programmes and the sport’s biggest racism scandal in decades. Meanwhile, his resistance to the media (twice he has gone a whole year without giving an interview) and enthusiastic embrace of culture wars (deliberately antagonising traditional fans in his promotion of the Hundred) could have been cribbed straight from the Johnsonian textbook.

Flat refurbishments. VIP procurement lanes. Sorry-not-sorry. This is the world we live in now, and yet for all this the overwhelming emotion is not outrage but a kind of helpless, emaciating bewilderment. Despite essentially funding the ECB through our television subscriptions and tickets and taxes, there is no popular mechanism for changing it. Fans don’t get to vote sports executives out of office. Like the public at large, all we can do is wait – for a change in the weather, an outbreak of conscience, the day when Harrison departs and takes his fetid, cynical corporate culture with him. And in the meantime, we hope that when that day finally arrives, there will still be a game worth saving.

[See also: The English cricket board is “not fit for purpose” says Azeem Rafiq]

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game