A lordly reign coming to an end


ALL the signs point towards the end of the reign of Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board by invitation and unchallenged since 1997.

As I write he is already under pressure from two different sources, one out in the open, one not yet declared.

The first came from Michael Soper, chairman of Surrey who says he has learned so much in his time at the Oval that he believes he has something special to offer cricket in this country. The other, still hidden, will be put forward shortly by a man who must remain anonymous for the time being, but who comes from a similar background to Lord MacLaurin.

As for M'Lord, he has always said that if he finds an opponent he will stand down. It is simply that having been asked to take charge five years ago he feels that he would rather step aside than risk the possibility of being voted out of office. I am on his side in this way of thinking.

Whatever else you feel about MacLaurin - and he has gathered a host of friends and almost as many enemies in his stay - he has brought a great deal of publicity and a measure of much needed dignity to the game.

So what has the man given cricket? Publicity by the very nature of his name and standing in society. The British public still loves a nobleman and in their mind's eye invest him with all sorts of qualities, rightly or wrongly.

So whenever a great event occurred - the gambling scandal, a new pay structure, a controversial change in the laws - it was MacLaurin the media wanted to interview. He was ever ready to oblige; I think he saw it as his most useful function.

That view was not quite correct. Lord MacLaurin is a member of the House of Lords and mixes freely, from his office in the environs of Westminster, with the great and good. His influence among the governing class enabled cricket to win one battle at least and his knowledge of the working of the City also helped them find a number of sponsors.

Thus he has enabled cricket to keep its place in the sporting league table and to stay solvent. His name, not to mention his considerable personal stature and powerful appearance also meant that when he spoke people listened. There is no doubt that in the tricky moments soon after the great betting scandal broke his calm manner ensured that the hotter heads were not allowed to rule the day.

I first met him soon after he took office when England were not only failing to win in Zimbabwe but when their coach David Lloyd, an emotional man, lost his head because he thought his side had been umpired out of victory. Heath Streak was allowed to bowl wide of the leg stump; legally but immorally, according to Lloyd who won very few friends by declaiming "we ruddy murdered 'em and they know it."

Lord MacLaurin quickly told Lloyd, another new boy, to watch out or he might not be coach for much longer. At the same time he looked at the conditions for touring cricketers and made crucial, simple decisions that enabled them to feel bigger, play harder.

His most important ruling was to insist they had a separate room apiece and although I understand the thinking that says young players may feel the need for a companion on their first tour I also think MacLaurin was right to set them on a path to adulthood. Sharing rooms may have been fine for the animals on Noah's Ark; in 21st century cricket it is unthinkable.

How does a non-smoker feel in the company of a cigarette addict? A heavy sleeper will not want the constant proximity of an insomniac.

Cricketers have another viewpoint. One batsman told me: "I've been sharing with a bowler. Never again. I'd rather miss out on a tour. They are very strange people if you're with them 24 hours a day. Never, never, again."

Undoubtedly the most important part of Lord MacLaurin's work at ECB has been the introduction of a new outlook, the increase in staff and the determination to make it a modern business. He had strategic help from Tim Lamb, their chief executive, who was given the job after declaring that he wanted to run cricket as a business but that business must always come second to cricket.

So at one time more than 200 people were reckoned to be working for ECB at any given moment which is hardly major industry. It is a giant step from the days when you could count the headquarters staff on your fingers and when their idea of modernisation was to fit an answerphone that announced they were all at lunch.

By the beginning of the 1990s they were being rapidly overtaken by staid old MCC who suddenly grew up. At one time a single electricity point was installed in a Lord's Press Box with more than 80 seats; the new edifice has won prizes for design and lavish praise for its good looks.

Now it is the turn of ICC who have made huge strides forward in the last couple of years. At one time they issued their Press releases by letter and if that were not old-fashioned enough I know of one journalist who went to ask for details of Test match dates and was given the only copy by a girl on her first day who had not realised she was working for a cricket organisation.

Now they appear to announce new appointments each day, their profile is high and I guess their morale is at a peak after a series of successes that have kept the game rolling. Their staff has doubled in nine months, if you count in those umpires and match referees who are now on the staff rather than being freelances.

The fiasco at the end of India's second Test in South Africa - when the match referee Mike Denness lost his sense of proportion - provided their finest hour. It needed the piece of diplomacy by the new chief executive Malcolm Speed that the United Nations might have envied to solve the crisis. One Test lost its status but a series was saved and some part of the good name of cricket preserved.

"Everyone was pleased with the way that worked out," says Mark Harrison, their spokesman. "The consequences if that had gone wrong were too terrible to contemplate. But now there is a sense of purpose and excitement here and the whole place is buoyed by new ideas."

While things have begun to run smoothly in one corner of Lord's, MacLaurin has not had an entirely smooth course on the other side; and the death of his wife has blighted his term of office.

Those with a deep knowledge of the game have not always seen eye to eye with him. His authoritarian stance has upset many. Soon after his appointment he had a famous, stormy row with Brian Bolus, then chairman of the powerful England Management Committee.

To the credit of them both they are still 'working together', each now rather more appreciative of what the other brings. Bolus was rated highly for his knowledge by Ray Illingworth, once chairman of all he surveyed but now living in quiet retirement and a regular on a golf club near Leeds.

I once suggested to Lord M that he should not leave Illingworth idle but that he should make him feel welcome to offer suggestions about any aspect of the game. He did not pick up my tip but he has provided leadership, dragged cricket into the new Millennium and brought the England team more respect.

Still, there is plenty left for a new man to achieve although whether the game turns to an ex-cricketer - perhaps Tony Lewis, captain in India in 1972-73, a public figure in Welsh government and president of MCC as well as a noted speaker and broadcaster - or another man from the business world remains to be seen.

I rather have a fancy for the former Prime Minister John Major, a devoted cricket fan, but he seems to have rejected the idea. Next time around maybe.