What Went Wrong With The ECB’s Balls? – Being Outside Cricket

The ECB has been encouraging children as young as five to play with their balls over the course of seven years, and recently discovered that it may have been illegal to do so.

There’s probably a better way to put that…

The ECB runs two large junior participation programmes; All Stars and Dynamos cricket. Both of these schemes offer at least eight one-hour sessions of cricket training based on a single centralised format. Children in either programme also receive their own personal kit which includes a bat, stumps, T-shirt and other accessories. Clubs have also been encouraged to purchase their own All Stars and Dynamos-branded equipment for their junior sections from an ECB-hosted website.

The ECB announced last week that some items they provided for both All Stars and Dynamos cricket last year failed a safety check. Specifically, all of the plastic cricket balls as well as batting tees and banners offered to the clubs which were hosting the courses were found to have levels of restricted pthalates above the maximum permitted in the UK.

It is important to stress that children who attended junior cricket last year (or indeed in previous summers) are not in immediate danger and this news should not be used to engender panic in children or parents. Regulations typically set limits on potentially dangerous chemicals far below the point at which they can actually cause harm. The ECB have consulted Trading Standards and the Office for Product Safety and Standards, neither of whom appear to think that there is a need to recall the items.

At the same time, the ECB has rightly informed clubs and possibly parents of their critical mistake. This has the potential to not only devastate the All Stars and Dynamos programmes, but damage junior club cricket across the country. Many parents will think twice about sending their kids to sports clubs when they might be using equipment which does not meet basic safety standards.

The ECB’s public statements are not helping in this regard. For a start, there is no ownership of the problem. The ECB are the ones who contracted whichever factory made the plastic cricket balls, and they are the ones who sold those balls to parents and clubs on the basis that they met the relevant UK safety standards. It would seem a basic moral imperative that they should replace any affected equipment free of charge, and I would be a little surprised if it wasn’t a legal imperative too. It would also have helped mollify club administrators, many of whom I would guess are furious right now, if the ECB had immediately committed to supplying alternative free cricket balls before the start of the season.

The press release is also confusing when it comes to the issue of the dangers and risks the balls pose to children. On one hand, the fact that neither Trading Standards nor the Office for Product Safety and Standards appear to believe that the test results merit a mandatory recall would imply that there is no significant danger posed by the chemicals. On the other hand, the ECB has advised “that the [plastic] balls should no longer be used” by either individuals or clubs which makes it seem like the risk may be higher than they are letting on. This is either incredibly poor communication or a very inept cover-up.

Where did it all go wrong for the ECB?

The most obvious cause of this fiasco is having the kit produced in a country with different, lower safety standards than the UK because it is ‘cheaper’. It would be virtually impossible for this to occur in a UK or EU factory because the laws in these countries wouldn’t allow any products with these plastics to be sold legally. By saving some money and cutting corners, they are now in a position where they may have to replace every All Stars and Dynamos ball they have ever sent to a club or kid at their own expense.

It bears saying that this is actually the second problem that contracting manufacturers on the other side of the world for All Stars and Dynamos has caused the ECB this year. They had already announced a postponement due to “experiencing some delays to the usual kit delivery process”. Given recent geopolitical events, it is not unlikely that a container ship with the ECB’s equipment has been redirected away from the relatively quick route through the Suez Canal due to increased risk in that region. This would not be an issue if it were being made closer to home.

On paper, the plan looks great. Going with the lowest bidder for making the kit saves everyone money which can be spent elsewhere. A Just-In-Time logistics setup where the equipment arrives just as kids are due to get their packs in the post means that the ECB don’t have to shell out on storage. If everything works as expected, it is a cheap and elegant method of distributing kit to almost 100,000 children and their clubs.

If.

It clearly never crossed anyone’s mind, at least in a position of power within the ECB, that any part of this masterplan could fail. But it did, and it has left not only the ECB but thousands of amateur cricket clubs in a real hole. The situation is vaguely reminiscent of when COVID-19 hit English cricket in 2020. The ECB had neither insurance to cover such a calamitous global event, nor any reserves to speak of after having used them to bribe the counties to support The Hundred in the previous years.

One issue that consistently dogs the ECB is a critical lack of diversity. I don’t mean in terms of gender, race, religion and so on (at least in this particular case), but of mindset. There is a culture within the sport’s governing body which seems to actively discourage dissent. People in positions of power hire their friends or, if they don’t apply, people with similar backgrounds and viewpoints to themselves. Experience, professional standards and an extensive track record are seen as secondary to being loyal and ‘fitting in’.

The upshot is that the ECB has all of the characteristics of an echo chamber. There are no questions raised about potential problems, no outside views sought, because there is no one in the decision-making process who disagrees with what is proposed. ECB employees tend to look alike, sound alike and think alike.

No one at the ECB appears to have asked the questions: “If the deliveries are delayed by a week or two, wouldn’t that massively harm the hundreds if not thousands of clubs who rely on these programmes to launch their junior cricket season every year?” or “Is the reason why the the plastic kit is so cheap because safety has been compromised?”

At the same time, there seems to be no sense of individual accountability either. This can partly be explained by the homogenous nature of the ECB. No individual can be blamed if everyone agreed, after all. More broadly, the simple fact is that club cricket is such a low priority within the organisation that a catastrophic failure leading to dozens or even hundreds of clubs disappearing probably wouldn’t be seen as a reason to fire someone who was otherwise liked by their bosses.

The person currently in charge of the All Stars and Dynamos programmes is former Cricket Wales chief executive Leshia Hawkins. She was, in fairness, only appointed last October which means that it would be unfair to hold her liable for the production issues which were certainly in place before she started. Her predecessor, Nick Pryde, has already left to work for an investment bank in their sports division. The response from the ECB after they discovered their mistake, which has somehow managed to be simultaneously fearmongering and totally ineffective, does fall on Hawkins’ shoulders.

One of the successes of the All Stars programme was that it offered clubs with few members, few volunteers and few resources a ready-made kit for running a junior section. It is more or less the only aspect of club cricket which is well-advertised by the ECB with its own website, its own social media accounts and a plethora of both physical and digital marketing materials made available to clubs. This means that many of the clubs who will be most affected by the delays, lack of equipment and negative publicity are the ones which are least able to absorb these blows. And the ECB appear, from the outside, to be doing nothing to help them.

Which brings us to the place we almost always end up in articles about the ECB: Their failures don’t really affect anyone within the organisation as they shrug it off and claim they ‘tried their best’, but cricket fans across the country end up suffering the consequences.

It really would be great if we could try something different.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this post, the women’s T20Is or anything else please leave them below.

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