At a time when the future of cricket in England is being debated by both fans and officials, it’s great to get a view from the top.
So Deep Extra Cover’s Terry Wright went to Edgbaston and talked to Neil Snowball, Chief Executive of Warwickshire County Cricket Club, of the Birmingham Bears and of Stadium Edgbaston.
Neil is well placed to speak with authority. Not only does he hold the top post at Edgbaston, he also he brings to bear his experience from other sports.
He was Head of Sports Operations at the 2012 Olympics and Chief Operating Officer for the organising committee of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
More recently, he has become a non-executive director of the company in charge of Birmingham’s bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
How are things looking from Neil’s vantage point at the helm at Edgbaston?
Problems on the field: “We decided to make some changes so Dougie moved on”
Dealing with local matters on the field of play, Neil was honest about Warwickshire’s dismal start to the season in both the County Championship and the Royal London One Day Cup.
He traced this back to problems that began to emerge in 2015.
“In the Championship last year, we saw a bit more of the decline we saw in 2015. The NatWest T20 Blast was disappointing in 2016 too. We’ve got no God-given right to qualify every year. But generally the performances were poor. We felt that T20 evolves all the time and maybe we had got slightly left behind in skills and approach, the speed of scoring in particular.”
It wasn’t all failure in 2016. Warwickshire did win the Royal London Cup.
“We have a particular way of playing the 50 over game and that was very effective. We hammered Surrey in the final which was extremely pleasing. I was thrilled for our supporters who really did take over Lord’s and make it a corner of Birmingham for the day.”
Neil was also concerned to set 2016 in the context of a successful half-decade.
“We won some silverware. This created a unique achievement which was to win all three competitions in the last five years, which no other county has done or come close to. In fact, we’ve won a trophy every other year since 2010.”
The Royal London win though was not enough to save Director of Coaching Dougie Brown’s job, as he was replaced by Ashley Giles who rejoined from Lancashire.
“We knew there were challenges so I conducted a thorough review of the whole cricketing operation at the end of the year. That was when we decided to make some changes so Dougie moved on and Ashley (Giles) came in.
“You could argue that part of the challenge is, as in any professional sport, if you’ve got a winning side, it’s very difficult to create opportunities and to force yourself to make those changes.”
Bringing young players through: “We’ve got a gap in the middle”
So what about the development of young players? Neil was realistic.
“As for young players coming through, we’ve got work to do there. In recent times, we’ve actually had 11 players from our academy who have played for the first team. So they’ve had the opportunity but in terms of cementing a place, it hasn’t happened. For some reason, they’re not up to it. So we really need to focus on the academy.”
While accepting the problems, Neil was keen to point out that there were players being selected for junior representative sides.
“We’ve got Liam Banks, George Panayi, Henry Brookes. We were pleased that Josh Poysden and Sam Hain got a chance in the North v South games so we’ve got some that are starting to come through.
“But we’ve got ourselves into that unfortunate position where we’ve got a bunch of very experienced thirty-somethings coming to the end of their careers and a bunch of potentially talented youngsters yet to prove themselves. We’ve got that gap in the middle. That’s what’s hurting us this year where it feels like we’ve hit a bit of a wall.
“We know there’s work to be done which is why we brought Ashley in with a remit across the whole sporting side of the business.”
“Of late, we’ve not recruited well”
When there is a scarcity of top quality players coming through the youth system, one option would be to seek to recruit players from other counties.
“That’s one of the things we’ve asked Ashley to look at. Of late, we’ve not recruited well. We were good in the past at recruiting – (Rikki) Clarke, (Keith) Barker, (Chris) Wright, (Varun) Chopra, though he’s now gone back to Essex. They were players who were maybe not getting opportunities at their other counties and we brought them here and developed them to become really great players.”
Some fans have surmised that a lack of money has hampered recruitment. Not so, says Snowball.
“We’ve identified funds. We’ll be active in the market. But what we don’t want to do is just recruit squad players. We need players who will make a difference. That’s what all counties want. It’s a competitive market but we’ll definitely be out there looking.”
As for overseas reinforcements to support long-serving Jeetan Patel, two signings for the T20 are already made.
“We’ve got (Colin) de Grandhomme and (Grant) Elliott coming in. We’re really pleased with those signings. It’s a good example of how Ashley likes to operate. We drew up a list of potential targets, he and I discussed that, then we identified Elliott and de Grandhomme as our preferred targets and Ashley went and got them.”
Progress off the field: “We’ve got a unique environment and great facilities”
Overseeing what happens on the field of play is only part of the role of the Chief Executive of a club based at a major venue like Edgbaston. Generating income to create a sustainable business is an ongoing challenge. How are things going off the field? Neil is upbeat about progress.
“The conference and events is going really well. We’ve got a team out there who are working very hard selling those packages, servicing the clients and building the reputations.
“We were thrilled last year when we won the award for the best venue in the Birmingham Food, Drink and Hospitality Awards. That was a real achievement for everybody involved at Edgbaston, as part of our joint venture with Compass. We also won the Midlands Wedding Venue of the Year.
“We are gradually building our reputation. We’ve got a unique environment and great facilities and we’ve got parking which a lot of venues don’t have.
“We’ve set some aggressive targets this year but we’re on target to meet those.”
Alongside the conference side at Edgbaston is the creation of links with commercial partners. Neil is also pleased with progress here.
“We just continue to build so our commercial partner programme is stronger than it’s ever been. We’ve got an increasing number of sponsors and partners who want to work with us.
“We’re always out there selling and marketing ourselves and we’re finding people who want to be associated with Edgbaston Stadium and with Warwickshire County Cricket Club and the Birmingham Bears. And they are getting more and more active all of the time. So that side’s going well.”
Filling the stadium for big matches: “We took the plunge and decided that we would go for a Day/Night Test”
Edgbaston has a good quota of big matches over the next three seasons. So selling tickets must surely be a high priority.
“Yes, our biggest thing is the ticket sales.
“There’s the Day/Night Test [against West Indies in August]. All through last season we were having discussions with the ECB and then we took the plunge and decided as a combination that we would go for a Day/Night Test and that’s proved to be very successful.
“We’ve sold twice as many as we think we would have done for a regular Test. Last year, we were thrilled with the Pakistan result, both on the pitch with England winning in the final hour of the final day – it can’t get much better than that – but also we got to 80,000 tickets which was more than anywhere else outside London.
“That was a real success and a hard sell because it was a very late sell. So this year, in comparison, we’re on track to beat that.”
This year, Edgbaston hosts five matches in the Champions Trophy, including England v Australia and one of the semi-finals. Ticket sales are going well.
“Three of the games are sold out and the other two will get very close.”
And then there’s the NatWest T20 Blast and the Birmingham Bears.
“For our T20 this year, we’re having a major push on families. One of the things we were pleased about last year, we were fourth highest of the 18 counties in terms of the number of tickets sold, just under 60,000. That’s an average of 10,000 because we lost one of the games to the weather.
“We want to beat that this year but we want to really target the family audience. We’re doing a lot of the marketing to attract the under sixteens. It’s later in the season so it’s more in the school holidays as well.
“So on the commercial side, a lot of hard work done, a lot still to be done but I think we’re in a good place there.”