Cricket: The firebrand of consensus
Super marketeer of cricket; Stephen Fay talks to the lord of Lord's whose mission is to revolutionise the game
Sunday 29 June 1997
His proposals will be published on 5 August; then - just as if he were selling a new share-issue to investors - he will be the star turn on a road show designed to persuade the county chairmen that his ideas are irresistible. But he does not propose to give them much time to make up their minds. They will vote on the proposals only six weeks later, on 15 September.
Whatever they decide to do will be done at remarkable speed. Lord MacLaurin intends that the fixture list for next summer should be immediately revised to absorb the changes that he and the county chairmen agree on: "There might be a bit of inconvenience," he says, relishing the prospect.
This means that, within a year, first-class cricket might possibly be played in two divisions; the Benson and Hedges Cup might have been consigned to history; the Sunday League might look quite different; and the number of professional cricketers could be falling fast. MacLaurin and his advisers at Lord's have not yet decided on the final list of recommendations. The one certain thing is that they will be radical.
Lord MacLaurin doesn't look it, but he was 60 in March. Playing golf has kept him trim and refreshes his tan. He retired from Tesco during the Edgbaston Test, having been declared by his peers the most admired businessman in Britain, and last week he was apologising for the untidy state of his new office in a neat street of small red brick houses across the road from the House of Lords. Since he promised John Major that he would put in some time on the Tory benches there, he has had a division bell installed.
When we met there was no small talk. It was Monday morning and England knew they had to bat through the day to save the Lord's Test, but MacLaurin had no doubt that they would. The days when England's heads went down are over, he declared. He had been in the dressing-room the previous morning and had told the team that being all out for 77 was like a bad day at the office. ("Cricketers say their visitors usually want to be associated with success, so I think it's more important for me to see them when they've had a bad day," he says.) Now he was confident that they would exhibit the guts, character and determination he expects of the England team during his administration. And, by God, he was right.
Lord MacLaurin is a motivator. It is perhaps his greatest business skill. Providing the motivation is how he ran Tesco, and he proposes to do the same at the ECB, where his objective is to create for cricket - from the first-class counties to the clubs - a new structure that will provide England with a team who are top of the tree year after year. "That's the only way I can look at it - like starting Tesco all over again. We had a great vision of changing this cheap and cheerful company into something great, and we did that."
And how did it happen? "A lot of the success I had in business was built on having played a lot of cricket. I ran Tesco as a big team of people." If he's the chairman of the ECB's reform group, its secretary Tim Lamb is the managing director: "Tim's background is in cricket administration, and he knows that pretty well. I know business pretty well, so we're trying to put the two together."
MacLaurin produces a two-inch-thick yellow file of the minutes of the meetings the pair of them had with the county chairmen during the winter and spring. "Virtually everybody we've spoken to says we've got to change, but there's no consensus. That's where we've got a lot of work to do."
He is discreet about his redesign, but it is clear from talking to him that it would be unwise to bet on uncovered wickets: "The old cricketers say 'we'll never be as good as we used to be unless we play on uncovered wickets', but I think it is probably impractical from a money point of view," he says.
We know that he intends to take better care of the Test team ("they are our shop window"). Tests supply the cash that keeps the county game alive (each county now gets pounds 1m a year from the ECB), and since Test matches generate income, England will be playing more international cricket. Consequently, Test players will play less county cricket.
From his preoccupation with Tests as cricket's revenue base, you can see what is uppermost in MacLaurin's mind. For instance, when he talks about the possibility of two divisions in the County Championship - the most controversial item on his agenda - he refers to the American baseball model: two regional divisions (north and south?) of nine teams playing each other perhaps only once, with the season culminating in a series of play-off games. That idea clearly has not gone away.
A redundancy programme to reduce the number of professionals playing county cricket is a likely recommendation. This is intended to open up the county's first and second elevens to really good club players. The model is Australia where talented players can see a clear line of promotion from grade cricket to the state side. Too many professional players means they are playing within a structure which excludes club cricketers, no matter how good they are. MacLaurin's solution will be to change the structure.
It is hard to see how both one-day competitions can survive his scrutiny. Retaining one-day cricket on Sunday, on the other hand, unites virtually all the counties, although that will not necessarily prevent him from proposing changes in the way it's played. "We'll make recommendations, and they won't all be accepted, but if you don't get the basics right, you're not going to get the profits in the future," he says.
At Tesco, he says, his authority rested on a consensus on the board that was never challenged by a vote. At the ECB the lack of consensus means that MacLaurin's authority is checked by the votes of the county chairmen. He understands that his success or failure depends on his ability to get them on his side: "If the county chairmen are confident in what I'm doing, I think we'll establish mutual respect. I hope in time they will say, 'This guy MacLaurin's OK. We're happy to leave the game in his hands with the executive at Lord's.' That's the name of the game. That's what we're trying to do."
Since he took the job, England have not lost a Test (the record stands at won three, drawn three), and MacLaurin's constant motivation is seen as a principal reason for the striking improvement in the team's morale. Since he is now being eulogised in the media, I wondered if his remarkable ambition to run the game created the danger that he will be cut down - like a tall poppy.
"It could well happen," he replies.
We will find out on 15 September.
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