Lord's turmoil brings fresh funding threat

Uncivil war between ECB and the counties puts Sport England millions at risk
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The Independent Online

English cricket faces a summer of discontent and a bitter struggle over who runs the game. It has been issued with an ultimatum to reform quickly or face dire financial consequences that would affect the sport from top to bottom and end any lingering hopes that England may become the best side in the world by 2007.

The warning, in the guise of advice, has come from Sport England, who provided most of the cash to build the National Academy in Loughborough. "We want to see a streamlined management structure and an end to the toing and froing in decision- making," said the chief executive, Roger Draper. "We are giving them time to put their house in order but we have the ultimatum sanction of not handing them any money."

The Cricket Reform Group, led by the former England captains Bob Willis and Michael Atherton, are also ready to rejoin the fray.

Draper was speaking at the end of a week in which the executives of the England and Wales Cricket Board were publicly humiliated by the First Class Forum - the chairmen of the 18 Championship counties. The FCF rejected completely the revolutionary proposals of the ECB's Domestic Structure Review Group and replaced it with their own Interim Review Group. In reality, the paid ECB executives have been forced to give way to the unpaid county chairmen.

Draper said: "Our report on corporate governance within the ECB has been made and they have it. We hope to sit down with them and, as with all the other major sports, draw up a four-year strategy starting in April 2005 as to how they propose to ensure cricket stays as the national summer sport."

The Willis-Atherton bunch will reveal their plans this week but probably intend to become increasingly vocal to try to embarrass the FCF out of existence. They have called for the break-up of the FCF and a reform of the way money is handed to counties at the rate of £1.3m a year.

The mood at ECB headquarters was reported to be one of dejection after the annual meeting last Tuesday. The FCF had already signalled their intentions towards domestic reform to take place at the start of 2006, when any new TV deal would start, and their session afterwards lasted only 55 minutes.

The DSRG, whose suggestions were carefully co-ordinated by the ECB's cricket operations manager, John Carr, cannot have expected to have all their plans accepted but were shocked that they were all summarily rejected.

Their fundamental aim was to reduce the amount of county cricket in a two-division format from 16 matches to 12. They also proposed merging the Championship and one-day leagues. To use an analogy from another sport, they never reached first base.

The First Class Forum also decided to keep the number of overseas players per county at two. All of this flew in the face of what players, coaches and most chief executives wanted. The ECB management board - one of the world's more flagrant misnomers - were seeking solace in the fact that the FCF at least agreed to performance-related fee payments. Counties failing to fulfil expectations in development and coaching will not receive their full annual amount. But the maximum that will be withheld is £100,000 a year.

David Willis, one of the Cricket Reform Group's founding quintet, said: "This season is one of great ferment. The TV rights are about to be renegotiated, things are changing and we have now seen that the power resides still with the 18 first-class counties. The England team is the most important thing but the recreational game at the root of it all is suffering. These are now critical times."

The ECB feel the county chairmen's rebuff - "utterly unconstitutional" was one verdict - is more momentous than theZimbabwe issue. That has plenty of mileage left in it, but at least there is the feeling that they are all in it together. The rest is turmoil.

At the back of everybody's minds are television rights. The deal with Channel 4 ends at the end of the 2005 summer and any stations thinking of bidding will have witnessed the internecine strife with bewilderment and a diminishing cheque last week.

Sport England gave £4.5m towards the National Acad-emy. They also fund several development officers and support county academies. "We want to see decisions being made smoothly for the good of the entire game and for sport in this country," said Draper. "The weapon we have is funding. There has to be a better system of management between executive and volunteer sector. It's got to happen." The Interim Review Group have yet to meet.