By Richard Edwards
It says much about Rob Andrew’s standing in English sport that in a room containing countless international cricketers, past and present, the former England rugby great is still probably the most easily recognisable person there.
Now over 12 months into his job as Sussex chief executive, he could hardly be accused of having an easy ride since arriving at Hove.
As well as overhauling the Sussex coaching staff this winter, Andrew has also had to pilot one of county cricket’s most historic names through the potentially choppy and devisive waters of a franchise competition that has threatened to marginalise those clubs who don’t boast grounds capable of hosting international cricket.
It hasn’t been dull, as Andrew is the first to admit.
“It feels like I’ve been here for about five years already,” says Andrew. “But joking aside, I’ve loved it, absolutely loved it.
“I enjoy my cricket, which helps, and I’ve just enjoyed getting to know the club, looking at the inside and outside of the club, how it works, how it’s set up, where I think we can improve, which is what you’re always trying to do.
“On top of that I’m trying to understanding cricket generally because there’s a fair bit going on.”
That’s the understatement of 2018. As well as the new T20 competition, cricket is also contending with fundamental shifts and, of course, the fallout from a ball tampering scandal that continues to reverberate across the globe.
The scorching sun of a parched Cape Town couldn’t be further removed from the soggy outfield and incessent rain in Hove on this particular day, but Andrew admits that the events that shamed cricket in South Africa will have an impact on the way counties and their staff approach the new season.
“I think these conversations (around preserving the integrity of the game) go on in all dressing rooms before and during the season,” he says. “But I think there’s a definite need for the game to present itself as being whiter than white this season – and I’ve no doubt it will be.
“When you’re selling a sport on the back of values and ethos, then you get it thrown back in your face if something like this happens,” says Andrew.
“People will turn around and say that cricketers are no better than drug cheats. It’s a wake-up call, no doubt about it. I was involved in a couple of them during my time at the RFU and this is no different.
“There probably has been a bit of an over-reaction in a certain sense but that’s the modern world of sport.
“What those Australian players did is cheating.
“People cheat in all sorts of sports and get caught. There’s a lot of money coming into the game and when that happens, values can change and people’s behaviour changes.
“It’s a really stark reminder to everybody to think before you act.”
There has been plenty of contemplation within the ECB in recent years, as English cricket’s custodians attempt to come up with a schedule and competition format that keep all levels of the game, if not happy, then certainly more content than they have been in the past two or three years.
Having come from the world of rugby, Andrew is perhaps better placed than most to comment on a structure and calendar that can, at times, seem chaotic at best.
Andrew’s main bone of contention is promotion and relegation and whether it should be done away with completely. His arguement is a solid one. After all, a conference system is hardly seen a poor way of running the 50-over and T20 competitions that provide domestic cricket with the majority of its revenue.
Before the introduction of the two division County Championship in 2000, the 17 – and then 18 counties after 1992 – had co-existed happily, with few calls for change. So would the scrapping of the two division system as well as the introduction of the city-based T20 tounament really be too much for English cricket to take?
“I don’t think so,” says Andrew. “This is a really interesting time for the county game. The franchise competition is going to happen and the game needs it to be a success, we want it to be a success. The arguments that the non-Test match grounds are putting forward is that we need the sport to be about far more than the eight ‘super counties’.
“The future of the game is best served by the 18 first-class counties and the Minor Counties – who need re-naming. We need to be careful we don’t go down the road of having these eight super counties and the rest being forgotten about.
“We support the new competition, we support the direction of the sport but there needs to be more focus on the balance of red ball and white ball. The red ball needs a complete shake-up.”
Andrew believes that the introduction of the new T20 tournament, and the dramatic change this will have on the schedule, could lead to a huge number of county cricketers doing nothing more productive than kicking their heels when the English summer is at its height.
“Those cricketers need to be playing red-ball cricket when the T20 competition is going on,” he says. “Let the T20 boys go off because there’s a danger of there being hundreds of county cricketers left behind having nothing to do. Let’s play some red-ball cricket, let the young 90mph bowlers bowl and let the young spinners enjoy some dry pitches in July and August.
“We won’t do that if we keep promotion and relegation because, for me, it distorts everything. Promotion and relegation brings far more negatives than positives. I keep asking what the benefit is and no-one can tell me.
“We have to accept that if we don’t play red-ball cricket through the new T20 competition then we’ll be playing all red-ball cricket in April and September and that can’t be right.”
In many ways it’s a battle for cricket’s soul – and who better to lead the charge than the English game’s oldest county.