David Morgan: England's man of steel proves master of the sticky wicket

Australia are on their way and questions about tours and TV deals show no sign of ceasing, but the ECB's chairman sees blue sky ahead for all levels of cricket
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The most eagerly anticipated cricket season for years, decades even, began last week in the usual desultory fashion, with rain stopping play and heroic spectators scattered pitifully around near-empty grounds; the same grounds in some cases that in July and August will be packed to the rafters for the Ashes.

The most eagerly anticipated cricket season for years, decades even, began last week in the usual desultory fashion, with rain stopping play and heroic spectators scattered pitifully around near-empty grounds; the same grounds in some cases that in July and August will be packed to the rafters for the Ashes.

Cricket is beset with such anomalies, and the man charged with making sense of them is also the man who has injected some significance into the "and Wales" bit of the England and Wales Cricket Board, which even he, a son of Tredegar, abbreviates as ECB. In succeeding Lord MacLaurin nearly three years ago as chairman of the ECB, David Morgan had large and doubtless terribly well-polished brogues to fill. The consensus in cricket circles seems to be that the former steel industry executive has done so admirably, yet his tenure has already been more controversial than his predecessor's, and for some people he will forever be stigmatised, as if in a Bateman cartoon, as "The Man Who Sold Cricket To Sky".

This is where our conversation begins. We are sitting in the slightly improbable surroundings of a tearoom at the House of Commons, because Morgan is shortly to attend a function in honour of the England women's cricket team. He is a kindly man of 67, with a face that reminds me of Owl in the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh. Still, it's not entirely inappropriate, for in common with Owl he seems like a repository of quiet wisdom. How wise, though, was it to sell cricket's broadcasting rights to Rupert Murdoch? And has he recovered from the ferocious public outcry?

He smiles. "I expected a huge protest, but I didn't expect to receive in three days more e-mails and letters than I did over the issue of Zimbabwe in two and a half years. There was a small proportion not worthy of replying to, and an even smaller proportion that were vile and anonymous. That which is anonymous, I learnt long ago, goes in the bin immediately. But I wrote to those whose letters deserved a personal reply, and to a person they have been far less incensed when they have heard the explanation."

The explanation was simple enough: the Sky offer of £220m over four years was vastly more lucrative than the next best, with Channel 4 making a less-than-strenuous effort to retain the right to broadcast Test matches in England. Moreover, the Sky deal more or less matched the current deal split between Sky and Channel 4, despite the predictions of media analysts that the ECB might be forced to accept a cut of up to 60 per cent.

Meanwhile, the BBC did not bid at all to televise either domestic or international cricket, explaining that its schedules were already full of other sports.

To those of us who grew up with Peter West's pipe tobacco virtually wafting out of our television sets, the news that BBC TV did not even bid is still hard to take. But times have changed. On the other hand, Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, presents a lucid case against the ECB's "short-term thinking" in the 2005 edition of Wisden, concluding that "cricket's governing body cannot be trusted to look after the best interests of our national game".

Barnett thinks that the ECB will be lucky, four years from now when the rights are up for renewal, to find any mainstream channels interested in cricket, enabling Sky to reduce its offer dramatically.

Morgan sees it differently. "The BBC did say that they would be interested in talking in 2007 or 2008, with a view to preparing the ground for 2010 forward. As for Channel 4, it is a matter of sadness that they couldn't bid more than they did. I refused to accept it for quite some time, because, like most cricket supporters, I believed that international cricket needs to be on free-to-view television. But the deal does provide highlights on Channel 5, from 7.15 to 8 every night, guaranteed. We wouldn't have accepted the deal without those highlights at prime time, nor would Ofcom have approved it. And really it is a tremendous breakthrough, after years of highlights at midnight."

While I consider whether Morgan should be challenged or complimented for finding a silver lining in so dark a cloud - which, let me reiterate, means no live terrestrial television coverage, from summer 2006, of a single ball of Test cricket - he continues: "People increasingly will welcome the opportunity of highlights at prime time, and I understand that more children watch television in that hour that at any other time of day. So the pill has been sweetened, and I also understand that Sky is being made available to county cricket clubs on a complimentary basis."

All the same, I say, phrases such as "sweetening the pill" underline the bitterness of the medicine. "Yes, it is a bitter pill, particularly for the older generation who have decided they can't afford Sky, or that on principle they are not going to buy it. I have had many letters from people not willing..." "To line Murdoch's pockets," I interject. Morgan chuckles. "I was careful not to use that terminology," he says.

So what of the money that the ECB will get, both from Sky and other sources? A few months back, the funding body Sport England was reported to have been nagging the ECB to demonstrate more of a commitment to grassroots cricket, else it would withhold its dosh.

Morgan insists that the discussions with Sport England were misreported. But he adds that the ECB's annual hand-out to the counties, currently £1.3m, will in future be performance-related, so that one county might find itself rewarded more than its neighbour for having an efficient academy, or for having on its staff a percentage of cricketers under 20 produced within its boundaries. This in turn raises the thorny issue of Kolpak: like Jean-Marc Bosman before him, the Slovak handball player Maros Kolpak took a grievance over restraint of trade to the European Court, and his legal victory has had huge ramifications for cricket, effectively decreeing that any county can sign any player from any country with a trade agreement with the European Union.

"Kolpak is a difficulty," Morgan concedes. "We have to abide by European law, and have taken counsel's opinion on two occasions. The performance-related fee payments will have within them a degree of reward for fielding England-qualified players, but abiding by the law is our top priority and if that were the only element, it would be unlawful."

Not wanting to get bogged down in law, I switch topics. Let's talk about the Ashes. With second in the world Test rankings playing first, the table is surely set for a feast of cricket that will yield tasty crumbs for the entire sport. But how will the ECB exploit this heaven-sent marketing opportunity?

"Well, David Collier, [the] ECB's new chief executive, has had the idea of having fixed screens in adjacent parks, so that people who can't obtain a ticket will be able to watch in a convivial atmosphere. Tickets have been selling marvellously well, and are priced appropriately for an Ashes series. They are always higher for Australia than for any other visiting country, so that isn't milking people this time round."

"You mean you always milk them," I venture. A huge chuckle. "I didn't say that,' he says. "Grandstand tickets at Lord's cost £52, affording a prime view of the game and six or seven hours' entertainment. I think that's very good value for money."

How much the county game will benefit from a surge of interest in international cricket, only the coming weeks will tell. Irrespective of that, Morgan wants the County Championship restored to a single division. When he was Lord MacLaurin's deputy, this was the main source of disagreement between them.

"He was for two divisions, I wasn't. He won, I lost. I think the jury's still out. There is a great deal of support [within the ECB] for looking again at a single division in the County Championship but having two divisions in [the] one-day league. Duncan Fletcher [the England coach] thinks there is too much county cricket. I don't. But I do think the Championship is diminished by each county not playing every other, by there perhaps being no Roses match."

So much for fixtures which should take place; what of those which arguably should not? I'm thinking of England's controversial tour of Zimbabwe.

"The end result could not have been better," he says softly. "We delivered a tour, and the tour had to be delivered if we were to build up our reputation as a leading member of ICC [the International Cricket Council]. I was determined that we should deliver, and the board was behind me.

"We did have a period when Des Wilson, chairman of the marketing advisory committee, produced a paper which argued against England going to Zimbabwe. I should not have allowed that paper to go to the media before it went to the board, and with the benefit of hindsight the paper should not have been produced in the first place.

"It was clear that the only acceptable reason for non-compliance, in terms of not fulfilling our commitment to [the ICC's] Future Tours Programme, was one, safety and security, and two, government instruction.

"But once Tim Lamb [then the ECB chief executive] and I had met Mr Straw and Ms Jowell, after Des had resigned, it became very clear that the government of the UK does not have the legal powers to prevent any British sporting body to go anywhere in the world.

"Once it was also clear that the penalties for cricket in England and Wales could be swingeing and very damaging, we stopped accusing the government of being unhelpful, and the government took a different line in respect of us touring. It made it clear that it didn't wish us to go, but couldn't prevent us, and realised that if we didn't the consequences could be very significant."

Meaning, of course, that the ICC could have suspended England from international cricket. But by avoiding this, the ECB gave succour to a horrible regime, no?

"No. I don't think so. Among the ordinary Zimbabweans who talked to me, at airports, and in the cathedral in Harare one morning, there was absolute delight that England were there. There was also a tour protocol which said that nobody in the England team, including the captain, would be required to attend any state event, which was coding for not shaking hands with Mr Mugabe. In the Harare Sports Club there were photographs of Mike Atherton shaking hands with Mugabe, and anything like that would have been unacceptable. But the protocol didn't cover me, so I took advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as to what I should do if I found myself in a room with Mugabe. That advice was personal to me, I promised I wouldn't share it with anybody, and I haven't done."

All this international politics, it occurs to me, is a far cry from Thomas Richards School in Tredegar, where Morgan was captain of cricket, his interest inflamed when Glamorgan won the county championship in 1948.

"That was a watershed," he recalls. "The team was captained by Wilfred Wooler, a giant of a man, who also played centre threequarter for Wales, and turned the team into one of the finest close-catching teams in the history of the game. My hero was Alan Watkins, the first Glamorgan cricketer to play for England against Australia. Watching him catch close to the wicket was quite something."

Does he ever reflect that it is also quite something for a humble Tredegar lad to lead the English cricket establishment?

"There was some pretty hard-nosed business experience in between to produce the tough, determined character that my softly spoken words belie," he says. And chuckles again, owlishly.