Retiring hurt: Tim Lamb

Embattled over Zimbabwe and hounded by the counties, cricket's head man has had enough. Stephen Brenkley hears what went wrong

There was a crucial retirement in cricket last week. For several dedicated years, more than he would care to remember, he had sought change, guided his team, protected them publicly. Sometimes there was not much outside support - vested interests abounded - but he kept going. Towards the inevitable end, a gang of critics had formed telling him enough was enough. Eventually, on Thursday he gave up the struggle. The repercussions of his departure have yet to be felt, though morale at Lord's was as low as it could have been.

This was not Nasser Hussain, erstwhile captain of England and hero of the First Test, although what he gave English cricket should never be underestimated. No, this was Tim Lamb, outgoing chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board. There was no crowd at the announcement of his resignation, there were precious few pats on the back. Like Hussain, he was not pushed, although an increasing number of people were lining up to offer advice on jumping methods. Like Hussain, Lamb leaves English cricket in a far healthier state than he found it.

He made mistakes, mostly over the Zimbabwean issue, which has run for almost as long as Harry Potter and almost engulfed him. Yet it was not that which finally led him to recognise his time had come. It was his loss of trust from the counties, who have demonstrated in the past month that it is they, not the ECB at Lord's, who still run English cricket.

They would claim otherwise but change has happened virtually in spite of them. What about two divisions, they would say. But it took Lamb and his colleagues three goes to get that passed. And the triumphant maiden season of Twenty20? It was narrowly pushed through, 11-8. Central contracts? They accepted those in return for a sizeable bundle of cash and still bleat.

As for more change, it was the latest domestic structure review which ultimately brought him down. It was only a draft, but the thought of a reduction in county cricket from 16 matches to 12, and a merged county and one-day league, provoked apoplexy in the shires. Lamb got it in the neck, and it rankles that he was not even a member of the review group, "as chief executives in other business would have been". Just for good measure his performance over Zimbabwe and the number of staff at the ECB were thrown in.

For eight years, he has had to perform a delicate balancing act between acting for the good of the England team and for the sake of county cricket. Given his non-confrontational nature this must have been especially difficult, and do not suppose he has remained unscarred. "One of the things that has disappointed me is that there is a misconception as to what the remit and the delegated authorities of the chief executive are," he said. "I think that there are certain people in the counties, relative newcomers to cricket, who don't actually understand that I don't have the authority that a chief executive of a business has." And because they did not understand and because they are anxious to protect their own neck of the woods they have given Lamb flak he did not deserve.

"A lot of people had a lot of things to say to the media and I would be a liar if I pretended that some of the things that have been in the press had been anything other than quite hurtful. This is a high intensity role, it has demanded my total focus and commitment. I have worked bloody hard for eight years and have made sacrifices, but when the time comes when you feel you have maybe outstayed your welcome you begin to wonder if it's not time to look elsewhere."

Lamb stressed repeatedly that it was his decision to go, but he did not conceal that he had probably lost the backing of the county chairmen. He will stay until the end of September but what his going emphasises is that the game will have to change to survive. Either it does, or it loses revenue from Sport England, which would be bad enough, and from television, which provides 82 per cent of turnover.

Discussing cricket's corporate governance is a subject designed to have most people wishing they could watch a Hussain cover drive one more time. But unless it changes the game will go to the dogs. One of Lamb's cloak-and-dagger critics, Mike Soper, the deputy chairman of the ECB, the chairman of the First Class Forum and the former chairman of Surrey, said last week that they had to get their next man in from business and pay him top whack. (Actually, when Lamb was appointed he beat a chap who was an accountant and venture capitalist).

This businessman will not be coming for any price if the game does not transform itself quickly. By Lamb's own concession any successor would be hamstrung by the present, unwieldy mess of bureaucracy. A corporate governance review, the Carpenter Report, has taken place. By the end of summer, a special general meeting will decide what to do about it. They have one choice.

"A lot depends on this review," said Lamb. "My personal view is that the chief executive should be given more authority and more accountability. Give them delegated authority to get on with the business. If they cock up they know what the consequences are. I have no problems with that, but it has to be made clear to me that that's what they want me to do. I feel I'm being held accountable and I don't actually have the authority."

But he refused point blank to express bitterness. Disappointment was as far as he would go. He also felt that the county chairmen, the new breed of businessmen, some of whom have been joining Soper in putting the boot in, are prepared to embrace change. "I absolutely believe there is a willingness and a recognition that we need a more streamlined decision-making process, but the composition of the management board is the key."

He and the ECB have been badly wrong-footed over Zimbabwe. It is one thing to say that they had no choice but to agree to the tour in October but he and they know that they spent much of last autumn girding their loins to tell Zimbabwe and the International Cricket Council that England would not be going. That would have sat well with the home audience but it underestimated utterly the feeling abroad.

Lamb agreed that the infamous Wilson Paper (which spoke of a moral framework for cricket tours) should never have been released without consultation with the management board. But he said that Zimbabwe had merely contributed to the intensity of the job. "I'm not trying to pretend we haven't made the odd slip-up but for the most part it's difficult to see we could have done anything very differently."

Maybe he is deluding himself slightly there, but it has been mighty difficult for the ECB, between rocks and hard places. No other sporting body had taken a moral stance on Zimbabwe. Well, maybe they should have done, but it would have been brave, considering the ICC threat to ban England, and playing with money the ECB do not have. "What is happening in Zimbabwe is appalling and deplorable," he said. "We would prefer not to go but we don't have any alternative within our membership of the ICC. We don't believe it's our responsibility as sports administrators to be expected to take the responsibility for assessing the respective merits and demerits of political regimes." But he realises he will never win that one at home.

He bristled just once, at the accusation that the ECB is overmanned. It is true that it is an allegation made by fools. True, you could probably fire the odd member of secretarial staff, or the odd press officer or the odd coach but the game would be the poorer. "It sticks in my craw," said Lamb.

He has tried to be all things to all men, to please all of the people because he has had to. And in the end it has not worked. But that is his nature. He claims to be relaxed with his decision to go and maybe he is free of the shackles at last.

Lamb lasted 10 years as a professional cricketer, taking 361 wickets at the not entirely disgraceful average of 28.97. Perhaps his finest moment was in a NatWest semi-final in 1981 for Northamptonshire against Lancashire when his seamers produced a burst of 3 for 2 (including Clive Lloyd). Then in fading light he marshalled a nerve-racked last-wicket stand with Jim Griffiths, the biggest rabbit the game has known. His 10 not out was worth a hundred. The scenes of emotion at Wantage Road were as spontaneous as they were rare. How Lamb smiled that evening.

Maybe now he will feel like that again. He has plenty to do in the next four months but more to reflect on. He can reflect on one thing more than others. As the son of Lord Rochester he was born the Hon Tom Lamb. This past month, he has lived up to the outmoded prefix. Unlike some of his critics he has conducted himself impeccably. He may not always have been right. He has been honourable.

BIOGRAPHY

Timothy Michael Lamb

Born: 24 March 1953 in Cheshire

Academic achievements: MA in Modern History (Queen's College)

As a player: represented Oxford University, Middlesex, Northamptonshire.

First-class career: 160 matches, batting average 12.49 (highest score 77), took 361 wickets at 28.97 (best bowling 7-56) as medium-pacer.

As an administrator: Middlesex secretary (1984) and general manager. Joined TCCB in 1988. Elected chief executive of the ECB in 1996, announced resignation 27 May 2004.

Also: is an Honourable, being the second son of the second Baron of Rochester. An Oxford Blue (1973-74).

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