Tom Harrison is sitting in the west London kitchen where he has spent the last six months steering English cricket through a Covid-induced financial nightmare that this year will cost the sport £200million.
His mind is elsewhere, however, reflecting on the segregated railway stations and schools of his upbringing in apartheid South Africa.
The ECB chief executive is explaining the strength of his commitment to improving cricket’s shocking record on diversity, which he regards as just as important as the other aspects of his rather challenging job — maintaining billion-pound television contracts, rebuilding international sport, designing biosecure bubbles and selling a new format of cricket to a sceptical audience.
ECB chief executive Tom Harrison is intent on change after Sportsmail revealed the extent of cricket’s diversity problem
The caricature of Harrison as a slick marketing executive who has sold cricket’s soul in the rush for TV cash provided by the Hundred belies the reality of a man with a deep feel for the sport and its timeless virtues of embracing meritocracy.
As an undergraduate at the University of Manchester, he wrote his dissertation on the impact of sport in undermining the apartheid regime, and since joining the ECB five years ago, promoting diversity has been central to his role.
Harrison co-authored the ECB’s Inspiring Generations strategy that aims to broaden cricket’s appeal, with a specific focus on increasing engagement in black and south Asian communities. Judging by Sportsmail’s revelations about the tiny number of BAME players and coaches on county staffs, it is sorely needed.
The 48-year-old is briefly overcome with emotion when asked how his childhood in South Africa has influenced his tenure at Lord’s, with the odd tear discernible even over the internet connection. ‘I get emotional about this, because it’s in me,’ Harrison says.
Harrison grew up in apartheid South Africa and said it has influenced his tenure at Lords
‘That’s why I’m leading on this and I am not giving it to someone else to do. If there’s one legacy I can leave, it’s putting the steps in place to helping more people enjoy our game.
‘The reason I’ve taken this on is because it’s 100 per cent what we need to be about. I grew up in Africa. I spent my early childhood in Nigeria and until I was 15 we lived in South Africa. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and did my university dissertation on the impact of sport in dismantling apartheid.
‘Growing up in South Africa, prejudice was part of everyday life. As a boy, I didn’t really understand, because it was all that I knew.
‘I remember asking my parents why black people had to stand on a different platform when we were getting on a train, or why there were benches with signs saying blacks couldn’t sit on them.
‘When I went to see my house master at school to ask if I could take my friend Segape Mmesi back home for the weekend, he said no. He said I couldn’t take Segape, but I could take Marcus.
‘This was when I was nine years old, so it was a formative experience, and has shaped my fundamental beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong.’
In addition to the incontestable ethical argument about promoting equality of opportunity for all, Harrison makes a compelling economic case for widening access to the sport, which has become even more important given the crippling impact of Covid-19.
With just 33 players from ethnic minority backgrounds on their books this summer, it is clear that many of the 18 counties are not reflecting their local communities, thus limiting their appeal.
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Harrison insists that must change if they are to continue receiving all of their ECB funding of up to £3.8m a year.
‘The bottom line is that promoting diversity will deliver a more sustainable game,’ he says. ‘The future of the game depends on our ability to be relevant to the communities we serve. You can have a game that is completely broken, but if you’ve got something that’s relevant and appeals to a wide range of people you will find a way through.
‘Alternatively, you could have all the money in the world, but if you’re not relevant to the communities you purport to be relevant to, or you’re discriminating or you’re prejudiced, then no amount of money will save you from the oblivion you’re going to end up in.
‘We can pull pretty significant levers in terms of funding. But I actually think that we’re pushing at an open door.
‘The choices and options kids have these days are incredible, so in order to be relevant cricket has got to be aimed at as wider group as possible.’
While the ECB are putting pressure on the counties by threatening to withdraw funding agreed through the County Partnership Agreement, the governing body are also taking a lead themselves.
As part of Inspiring Generations, an inclusion and diversity strategy was launched earlier this year which will remain in place despite the painful cost-cutting measures that are being implemented, and build on the South Asian action plan introduced 12 months ago.
Harrison co-authored the ECB’s Inspiring Generations strategy to broaden cricket’s appeal
The tangible measures already in place include ECB-funded bursaries for black coaches and the appointment of a diversity champion to the ECB board, Brenda Trenowden.
Harrison is also leading the process of recruiting a team of black influencers in the hope of driving engagement from that community.
‘I’ve spoken to black and Asian players, coaches, administrators and supporters at all levels of the game,’ Harrison says. ‘I’ve heard some very, very disturbing stories, but also rewarding ones. It’s not all bad, but there’s clearly a big problem.
‘When we see the statistics you’ve put out — and obviously we have our own data — it describes a very disturbing pattern to us.
‘It’s personally very hurtful to go through this process and hear these stories, from the very people we’re trying to make this game better for.’
The ECB have work to do themselves because, following the departure of Lord Patel of Bradford last month, the 11-strong board is all white and therefore in breach of Sport England’s governance code — an issue that is being addressed by new chairman Ian Watmore, who is expected to make a swift appointment to fill the gap.
Harrison said there needs to be greater visibility of ethnic minorities throughout the game
‘There needs to be greater visibility in the people making decisions across the game,’ Harrison says. ‘We now have an all-white board at the ECB, which is not good enough, and we have some recruitment to do over the next few months.
‘Change in this area has been too slow throughout the game.
‘This is not a new problem for cricket but it’s one that has to be addressed. Beyond individual schemes and strategies, we need to change the mindset of everyone in the sport to an “always on” attitude when it comes to inclusion and diversity going forward. It’s about education, visibility and leadership.
‘There are clearly societal issues which feed into this, but I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse. This is cricket’s problem and we have to sort it out.’