Colin Graves has stressed wealthy Indian Premier League team owners remain keen to buy into the Hundred as English cricket considers private investment in response to the financial challenges of Covid-19.
Eyebrows were raised last week when it was announced that Graves, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board until last September, had joined the advisory board of Oakwell Sports, a financial consultancy that last year published a report advocating the sale of equity in the new 100-ball tournament.
The ECB, now chaired by Ian Watmore, is expected to discuss this and similar offers of assistance at a board meeting next week as the sport continues to grapple with last year’s £105m losses and the prospect of 2021 – when the Hundred finally launches – bringing further financial pain.
But while one senior source admitted there is ingrained reluctance about going down the private route – “it would be impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube afterwards” – Graves believes the ECB can ill-afford to ignore offers of help given the levels of debt among the 18 first-class counties.
Graves told the Guardian: “English cricket has got a bright future. There is fantastic talent coming from within the academies and the pathway. The problem which it’s always had is finance. You have 85% of the revenue reliant on one broadcaster and somewhere in the region of £190m worth of debt in the game.”
“I didn’t create that, it has happened over the years. And it is massive for the size of the business, especially if broadcasting rights drop after the current five-year deal [worth £1.1bn]. Covid-19 hasn’t helped, the debts have grown and the pressure will only get bigger. All I would say is, ignore it at your peril.”
Asked what solutions he is advocating, Graves said: “It can be all sorts of things. Private investment is an option. There is Indian interest. When I said that as chairman, people said it was a load of gobbledegook but it wasn’t at all. There are people in the IPL who are interested in the Hundred – that’s fact. I haven’t made it up, I haven’t dreamed about it.
The game has moved on a lot since Allan Stanford – people learned a lot
“It could be shares, brand names, commercial partnerships – and if we could get Indian players in the Hundred that would be phenomenal. These are the things that need putting on the table and talking about. There’s a multitude of options, investors, IPL teams, the BCCI working with ECB. There’s no agenda, just an open discussion of what is and could be available. If people don’t want to take those opportunities, that’s up to them.”
The ECB turned down the chance to privatise domestic Twenty20 cricket back in 2008 – the so-called “Bradshaw-Stewart” plan – and was burned the following year when a lucrative partnership with Texan tycoon Allan Stanford was ended by his conviction for a multi-million dollar fraud.
Among the concerns is that private investment, whatever form it takes, could simply lead to wage inflation and profits leaving the sport, rather than going towards grassroots cricket and infrastructure. There are fears too that signing away control could create a pathway for corruption.
Graves said: “The game has moved on a lot since Allan Stanford – people learned a lot. There are checks and balances now, due diligence. Whatever happens would be very thorough to ensure that the game is protected. [On grassroots cricket] you would set parameters from square one and any deal would have to ensure it has money going forward. You cannot ignore it, it’s the future. When I took over as ECB chairman, grassroots cricket wasn’t talked about at board meetings. In five years it is now fully on the agenda.”
Oakwell’s report last summer, which suggested gifting equity shares in the Hundred to counties and sourcing private capital, was co-authored by Mike Fordham, who previously worked on the Hundred project at the ECB and has since become chief executive of the Rajasthan Royals.
Graves insists there was no grand plan to sell off the tournament while it was in its lengthy gestation period, however, with the 73-year-old adding: “That report made one or two people sit up and think but there was no input from me.”
“Oakwell’s chair, Andrew Umbers, first approached me last November – we’d never met before – and with my background, I felt I have a bit more left in the tank. I’m not trying to undermine anyone, I’m there trying to help. That’s all I’ve ever done with cricket.”
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