In the first in this series of pieces on South African sports administrators who have succeeded abroad, Dylan Rogers profiles Steve Elworthy, the England & Wales Cricket Board’s Managing Director of Events & Special Projects.
There should be no reason why Steve Elworthy isn’t a contender – or at least is being considered – for the position of Cricket South Africa’s next Chief Executive Officer.
That’s unless he doesn’t want the job, CSA plans to make Interim CEO Pholetsi Moseki’s current position permanent, or the next chief executive needs to be a person of colour.
Otherwise, Elworthy ticks a lot of boxes and CSA could certainly do a lot worse.
He’s a former Proteas all-rounder, so he has a deep understanding of the game at all levels. He’s previously held commercial, sponsorship and marketing roles at either CSA or the ECB. He’s successfully run seven International Cricket Council events, and he’s just led the ECB through the initial stages of the Covid-19 crisis, pioneering its approach to ‘bio-secure bubbles’ and being lauded for spearheading the team that ensured international cricket took place in the UK in 2020.
In fact, his success in the UK over the past decade is such that 2018 saw him formally recognised as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his service to cricket, even before he delivered a successful 2019 World Cup.
Elworthy’s experience and track record as a sports administrator have also seen him recognised in other sports in the UK. He’s currently the Independent Chair of the Vitality Netball Superleague and is UK Sport’s representative and Independent Director for the Cycling World Championships in Glasgow in 2023, having also previously sat on the Great Britain Basketball board as Independent Director.
More importantly, he has a simple philosophy of putting the game first, when it comes to sports administration.
“My mantra has always been – and I tell this to all the teams I work with – ‘make decisions in the best interests of the sport’,” he says. “So, if you can put your head on your pillow every night thinking ‘I’ve made that decision because I thought it would help or be better for cricket’, then you’ve made the right decision and I can support any decision you make. That’s the fundamental point to all of it.”
Initially, the ‘point of it’ for Elworthy was to move seamlessly from playing cricket professionally into some sort of career. He’s a qualified electrical engineer and spent time working for Eskom during his playing days, whilst he also picked up a marketing qualification from the then-RAU (now University of Johannesburg).
So, that move was not necessarily going to be within cricket, but that’s exactly what happened in 2003, when he turned down a two-year playing deal from what is now the Central Gauteng Lions, at the age of 38, and managed to land a job as Cricket South Africa’s Sponsorship Manager, prompting his retirement as a player.
“I thought, here we go, I’ve got a job, it’s in cricket, that’s brilliant,” he says.
Elworthy went on to run the CSA commercial department and when South Africa was awarded the 2007 ICC World Twenty20 tournament and then-CEO Gerald Majola was looking for a tournament director to run it, he stuck his hand up.
“I thought, how hard could this be?” he says.
The tournament was a success and within a few months he was living in the UK, having been offered a two-year contract by the ECB to prepare and run the next ICC World Twenty20 tournament in 2009.
But that two-year contract was just the start of it in the UK for Elworthy, who then moved into the ECB’s marketing department as Director of Marketing and Communications in 2010, before taking on the role of the ECB’s Director of Global Events in 2013. That saw him run the 2013 and 2017 Champions Trophy events, along with the 2017 Women’s World Cup, whilst along the way being appointed Managing Director of the 2019 Men’s World Cup in 2016.
The rest is history, with the English team capping a remarkable 2019 World Cup with a last-gasp win over New Zealand in the final – all of which made Elworthy’s job a little easier, he says: “Home team success is critical and you just can’t replicate it.”
What has also been difficult to replicate is professional sport’s response to a global pandemic. That’s because, until last year, it hadn’t been done before.
“Delivering a World Cup was easier, because there was a blueprint,” says Elworthy. “But, with Covid, no-one had a clue, and what we relied on was the knowledge and experience of people who were experienced event operators and professionals in fields such as medical, government etc, and when we sat down, we could draw on that level of expertise and understanding and put a plan together. That was key.”
Elworthy had been due to leave the ECB at the end of 2019, but once again was asked to stay on – this time to oversee The Hundred tournament. Then Covid hit and he picked that up as a ‘special project’, looking specifically at how the ECB could get international cricket going last year, using bio-secure bubbles.
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According to Elworthy, the key to pulling that off was focusing on the UK cricket grounds that had hotels on-site, such as the venues in Derby, Worcester, Manchester and Southampton.
“That meant we could lock the entire place down and control the flow of people in and out,” he says, before going on to add that the recent World Test Championship final between New Zealand and India would never have taken place, if it wasn’t for the Ageas Bowl venue in Southampton. India, as a country, was on the UK’s ‘red list’ and the Indian players weren’t legally allowed to enter country. They had to quarantine for 10 days, but the on-site hotel meant they could still train and prepare adequately for the final.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is how Elworthy and his team first approached attempting to put on international cricket in the UK in the middle of last year.
“What we did was take a game, unpack it completely, and then put it back together, bit by bit, with a Covid lens on top of it,” he says.
That included writing policy for “absolutely everything”, including down to who would pull the stumps out of the ground at the end of the day’s play!
“Test matches were the most challenging, because it’s a multi-day event,” says Elworthy. “One-day internationals were easier, but Tests were the ultimate challenge, as you could get a positive case on, say, day three, and then what do you do?”
Elworthy says the ECB was getting intelligence from the UK government and the medical fraternity about Covid-19 all the time, but the real coup was persuading international teams to get on a plane and come to the UK, which, at the time, was a bit of a ‘hot spot’, in terms of infection numbers.
“The West Indies were coming from a Covid-free environment,” he says. “The faith they put in us, that just cannot be under-estimated, and without them, we would not have got the season away.”
It’s been an interesting past 13 years or so for Elworthy, to say the least, during which time he’s established himself as an internationally-recognised cricket administrator, with a particular strength in delivering world-class tournaments.
The impact of Covid-19 on cricket in the UK has meant he hasn’t had much time to reflect, but that doesn’t stop him from being forthright when I push him on his influences and whether or not he’s ever looked up to a mentor or sports administrator who has gone before him.
“Sports organisations go through life cycles and sometimes the pendulum, in terms of the way the organisation is run, swings in different directions,” he says. “So, you might have someone who is really commercially-focused or participation-focused. They all have different make-ups or values and the trick is to select bits from each one of them that you think are the real nuggets of value, and then let that help shape you. Because every single one of them has strengths, but you don’t necessarily agree with some of the other stuff.”
So, back to Cricket South Africa.
Despite the positive developments of more recent times – with the institution of a majority independent board and independent board chairman in the past month or so – surely Elworthy must have followed the CSA administrative shenanigans of the past few years?
“As an ex-South African cricketer, my over-arching view is that it’s just disappointing, because when one looks at the players and the talent, it should be one of the top teams in the world,” he says. “I often wonder if the eyes have been taken off the ball, in terms of focusing on things other than the cricket side of things.”
With that in mind, could Elworthy ever see himself back in South Africa, working in cricket administration?
Unlikely, he says, due to the fact that his two kids are now finished with university and making lives for themselves in the UK, and having missed much of their childhood touring with various cricket teams, he doesn’t want to be too far away from them.
“You never say never with these things,” he says.