Ben Stokes' schedule warning heard, says ECB chief executive Clare Connor

By Stephan ShemiltChief cricket writer
Ben Stokes
Ben Stokes has retired from one-day internationals, but will continue to play Tests and T20s for England

Ben Stokes' warning over the schedule demands on top players has "absolutely" been heard, according to interim England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Clare Connor.

England Test captain Stokes retired from one-day internationals last month, partly over the relentless schedule.

He and Jonny Bairstow have also opted out of The Hundred in order to rest.

"We have to listen to those who are being expected to deliver, entertain and inspire," said Connor.

The former England women's captain temporarily stepped up from her role as the ECB's managing director of women's cricket in June when Tom Harrison left his post as chief executive.

Connor is likely to be in the interim role until at least the autumn and has not ruled out applying for the job full-time. Separately, a new chair of the board is set to be appointed imminently.

In a wide-ranging interview Connor told BBC Sport:

  • It is a "huge blow" for The Hundred to be missing Stokes and Bairstow
  • The "healing" process following the racism scandal has begun
  • English cricket should brace itself for more discomfort from an independent report into equity in the game, due later this year
  • The women's T20 competition in the Commonwealth Games will paint a "favourable picture" for cricket's bid to be included in the Olympics
  • "Unpopular" decisions may have to be taken over the domestic structure in order to benefit the England men's teams

'We have listened closely to Ben'

After announcing his retirement from ODIs, Stokes said: "There is too much cricket rammed in for people to play all three formats now.

"We are not cars, you can't just fill us up and we'll go out there and be ready to be fuelled up again."

Connor, who won more than 100 caps for England, said she does not have "all the answers" for easing the packed calendar, but does understand the need to limit what is being asked of players.

"We have listened closely to what Ben has said," she said. "It's something that we have got to grapple with - that's us with players, other boards, the International Cricket Council and the Professional Cricketers' Association.

"The players are at the heart of what we need to do to take the game forward. Without them, we don't have a game that has got the wow factor to inspire."

The Hundred began on Wednesday, with defending men's champions Southern Brave comfortably defeating Welsh Fire.

Though Connor acknowledged the detrimental absences of Stokes and international team-mate Bairstow, along with injured England captain Heather Knight from the women's tournament, she said the competition will not suffer from "second-season syndrome".

Connor pointed to ticket sales that had reached 500,000 before the tournament started, only 10,000 short of the total sold for last year's inaugural event.

"The whole game should have confidence we're in for another brilliant month of 100-ball cricket," she said.

'The healing has started'

Connor has taken over as chief executive following a year when English cricket was engulfed by allegations of racism from former Yorkshire spinner Azeem Rafiq and others.

Rafiq labelled the English game "institutionally racist", while a parliamentary report recommended public funding should be withheld unless "continuous, demonstrable progress" on eradicating "deep-seated racism" was made.

In response, in November the ECB published a five-point plan, including "12 tangible actions" aimed at tackling discrimination and racism.

"The game came together and said sorry to the people it had let down," said Connor. "We aren't where we need to be but we are making really good progress.

"I think the healing has started. We completely recognise that we aren't yet the modern, inclusive sport that we need to be for everybody to feel welcome in it.

"It's about cricket being a game for everyone, becoming gender balanced, serving communities that it has let down in the past."

In June, Yorkshire and a number of individuals were charged by the ECB in relation to the allegations of racism at the club.

One of those charged, former coach Andrew Gale, has said he will not engage with the process, has not been interviewed by the ECB and has had his "life defined by unsubstantiated allegations".

However, Connor said "categorically" that the disciplinary process, led by the independent Cricket Disciplinary Commission, has been fair to all parties.

"I am under no illusion to the well-being challenge this is presenting to many people," said Connor.

"I am completely confident it is robust, fair and will reach a conclusion that we need to reach in order to move on."

Separately from the racism investigation, the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket is due to publish a report later this year.

"I don't think we should be under illusions that the game probably has got another period of discomfort to accept and grow from," added Connor.

"What they tell us I trust will be a fair picture of our reality and the truth in where cricket still needs to improve. We have to embrace that."

Possible 'unpopular' decisions over domestic game

Former England captain Andrew Strauss is leading a "high-performance review" designed to make the men's national side the best team in the world across all three formats of the game.

Part of the review is likely to involve recommendations for changes to the structure of the domestic game.

On Wednesday, The Cricketer reported on a fan survey which showed opposition to a reduction of County Championship matches, which Stokes then appeared to support on Twitter.

"Ab so bloody lutely," he wrote.

Although Connor explained it is too early to know what the recommendations will be, she said "unpopular" decisions could be taken if they are for the betterment of the England team.

"The key mission of the high-performance review are about the England men's team being the world's best across three formats," she said.

"The men's domestic structure is a core part of that in terms of where players are developed and how English cricket as a system plays its part in that overall ambition.

"It's an opportunity for cricket to move forward and have systemic improvements."

"50-50" on 2028 Olympic inclusion

Connor admitted she was "tearful" when she saw the England team take part in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, with a T20 competition for women marking cricket's return to the event after a 24-year absence.

More than 150,000 tickets have been sold for the matches at Edgbaston, meaning the Games will have a higher average attendance than any other global women's cricket tournament.

Connor admitted she was "50-50" on whether cricket will succeed in its push to be included in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, but does believe the success of the Commonwealths will boost the bid.

"Viewing figures, ticket sales and momentum around women's sport will paint a favourable picture," she said.

"Conversations are ongoing with the ICC and International Olympic Committee around how cricket could feature in the 2028 Olympics and what that would be. Would it be an under-age tournament, men and women, or just women? All of that is to be worked through."

When asked if she wanted to keep the chief executive position on a permanent basis, Connor admitted she had not been "put off" by her temporary time in the role.

"It is an honour to be in this position," she said. "I'm enjoying it and I'll see where I am in the coming months."

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