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Cricketers’ chief Lynch: ‘The Ashes could become like the Ryder Cup’
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Cricketers’ chief Lynch: ‘The Ashes could become like the Ryder Cup’

“I have never seen a more engaged playing group than we have right now,” says Rob Lynch, the outgoing chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association. “They want to understand the value of broadcast deals, crowd figures and viewerships. They get the economics and they get their value. That’s the real difference these days.”

After four and a half years at the players’ union, the 41-year-old Lynch is about to move on, a role as director of cricket operations at Marylebone Cricket Club too enticing to turn down. It is also a return of sorts, the former New Zealand Under-19s batter having been part of the young cricketers scheme at Lord’s back in the day when their first choice, a certain Brendon McCullum, was still in two minds about pursuing a rugby career.

Over a coffee, Lynch admits the timing of his move is suboptimal given 2024 features six big negotiations between the PCA and the England and Wales Cricket Board that will shape the next five years of the sport. Still, his insight into how the modern player thinks underlines how the rise of Twenty20 franchise leagues has altered the traditional career path of simply county cricket and, if good enough, England.

“It’s now a global employment landscape,” says Lynch. “The modern cricketer has more opportunities than ever before. The massive growth area that is not accepted as much as it should be is those players who are just below the England team and the life they can now live through playing cricket in private competitions. I have seen uncapped players jump from five-figure wages to six pretty rapidly in my time.

“If we as a game don’t get this next phase of the sport right I believe we will have English-developed players who will look at their calendar and see July and August as the time to lie on a beach in Spain because, right now, the Hundred and the Blast are some of the lower-earning opportunities. We had 79 male players playing overseas last winter and the question is: how do we maintain their interest in English cricket?”

It is a question that is becoming increasingly acute, with the PCA seeking a “small” reduction in the volume of county cricket, and the Hundred on the verge of private investment. The Pakistan Super League is also set to coincide with the Indian Premier League from next year – and thus the first two months of the County Championship – potentially further pulling away talent.

Ben Stokes of Durham bowls out Josh Bohannon of Lancashire during the County Championship match.View image in fullscreen

“The PSL could fast-forward things,” Lynch says. “In 10 years’ time, the game will look very different. At the top end, I can see players becoming more like tennis pros or golfers, with their own physios, coaches and managers, servicing themselves to be self-sustainable. In terms of the schedule, let’s have a sensible conversation. Something has to give. We all agree it’s not working but no one seems willing to give anything away.

“Every year the PCA holds rookie camps and we ask players where they focus their skills. I was convinced initially it would be white-ball or both formats, but it’s still red-ball or both, to be honest. I’d urge the PCA to ask again down the line, because when the 18-year-old on a minimum contract starts to do well and can earn six figures playing around the world, they may well see things differently.”

Those negotiations reflect the start of a new broadcast deal from 2025 and cover memorandums of understanding for England’s men and women, the standard contract for county men and tier one women’s players, commercial rights and the continuing relationship between the ECB and PCA. While the Sky deal was renewed with only a small inflationary increase, it is clear the players want a greater slice of the pie.

“The starting point for this is: what is the value of the England men’s and women’s programme to English cricket?” explains Lynch. “We believe the current percentage is not reflective of the true value that those two teams bring to the game. We are openly saying we want to work with you [the ECB] to understand how you have come to this figure, because we need to get this right.”

It was notable that when England handed out multi-year central contracts last October, Ben Stokes signed on for only 12 months. Lynch stops short when asked if the Test captain will act as the union’s shop steward in these talks, but cites him as a prime example of the modern player who knows his value and sees the bigger picture.

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“Ben is very, very engaged,” says Lynch. “And he has some strong views on it all. The same goes for [the England Women’s captain] Heather Knight – she is very switched on. Equally, the players also know their responsibility to the growth of the whole game; it’s a delicate balance. We love it, because there is nothing worse than not having that engagement. You’re stuffed without it. And as a union we have one card: the collective.”

Lynch is “in awe” of what Stokes and McCullum are doing to invigorate Test cricket through their attacking brand of play. “The future of Test cricket is a complex question to answer but also the question,” he says. “The ECB will tell you India and Australia are committed to it but broaden it out to the other boards, I’m not sure they’ll say the same, purely because of the economics. I don’t know if I’m excited or scared. In time the Ashes could become a standalone event, like the Ryder Cup.”

When Covid struck in 2020, it was Test cricket that the English game rushed to save first because the truth – sometimes wilfully ignored by a sport in thrall to T20 – is that the longest format still pays the bulk of the bills in this country. The pandemic also coincided with Lynch’s arrival at the PCA, first as commercial director before a jump to chief executive within months.

“The isolation and the hotel lockdowns were brutal,” he says. “Being away from families, the testing, the mental and emotional impact of it. I won’t name the commentator but one of them called me before a tour to ask if I could get them out of quarantine. I remember telling them: ‘Mate, I wouldn’t be able to get David Beckham out of it!’ It feels like a dream now. But I’m proud that the PCA didn’t make any redundancies and also the players saved the game £17.5m in pay cuts and by waiving prize money.”

Another source of pride was the return of England’s men to Pakistan after a 17-year hiatus, while Lynch’s time at the PCA has witnessed the increased professionalisation of the women’s game, with 17 contracted players when he joined compared with 107 now. A further 30 will follow from next year.

The union has itself become more diverse at both board and staff level, including the appointment of Donna Fraser as director of equality, diversity and inclusion in late 2022, plus the creation of new education programmes. Mental health support has also grown to meet rising demand.

Such services are delivered on behalf of the ECB but Lynch bristles when asked if that makes in turn the union weak in negotiation with the governing body. “That really gets me going,” he says. “At Durham, during a pre-season meeting in 2021, one player asked: ‘How can we trust you to represent our interests when the PCA is fully funded by the ECB?’ It was a fair question.

“But the word funding isn’t appropriate; the ECB provides money for the PCA to deliver services to players, be it mental health support, career development, legal support, helplines or insurance. We are the best body to facilitate that. We engage with the ECB from a position of respect but we are not afraid to have robust conversations.”

While Lynch now heads to Lord’s, the new role’s appeal in part due to MCC potentially becoming team owners in the Hundred, those robust conversations will only continue.

Source: theguardian.com