November 12, 2009

A terrestrial return would cripple English cricket

Having made their bed with Rupert Murdoch and feathered it to the tune of £300 million over four years, the ECB should not be ejected from it

First, a confession. I came to cricket by accident, towards the end of the 1980s, when for five days in every fortnight of the summer holidays, my regular BBC viewing would be hijacked by a bunch of blokes in white, doing a whole lot of not-a-lot for hours and hours on end. Using an eleven-year-old's blend of inquisitiveness and idleness, I parked on my sofa and resolved to work out what on earth was going on, and slowly but surely a habit was formed that has lasted a lifetime.

Yes, my cricket obsession began in exactly the manner envisaged by the department of culture, media and sport, who have received their recommendations from David Davies, the former chief executive of the FA, and are set to announce that from 2016 onwards, the Ashes should be restored to the list of terrestrial TV's sporting "crown jewels". You might think I'd be delighted that a whole new generation of children are being offered the same route into the sport that I love. In actual fact, the notion fills me with dread.

Make no mistake, this is a move that could cripple the finances of English cricket. The ECB have been criticised, and rightly so, for the series of decisions that brought them to this point in time - but having made their bed with Rupert Murdoch and feathered it to the tune of £300 million over four years, it's only right that they should be left to lie in it. Instead, in what is being portrayed in some quarters as the Government's revenge on Murdoch for The Sun's switch of allegiance to the Conservatives, the ECB are being forcibly ejected from their bed, and cast out into the cold of a recession-hit economy.

The decision to re-classify the Ashes is misguided for two principle reasons, and that's even before the monetary aspect is taken into account. Firstly, it fails to take into account the massive and ongoing revolution in viewing practices that is underway in Britain and across the world right now. With the analogue switch-over now in full swing, and 2016 still a lifetime away in technological terms, who knows what will constitute "terrestrial TV" in seven years' time anyway? Whatever it is, it won't be the quartet of BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel Four that my generation knew growing up, and which compelled us to stick with the cricket because there was simply nothing better to be found on other channels.

Of course it would be nice if the peak that was reached for Sky's Ashes coverage this summer - 1.9 million - could come close to rivalling the 7.2 million who watched Kevin Pietersen's series-seizing onslaught at The Oval four years earlier, but times they are a-changing - and never in the history of mankind have they changed at a greater pace. Gone are the days when Morecambe and Wise could pull in 28 million viewers for their Christmas specials. No single media event will ever again be foisted on its viewers for want of an alternative.

At present, a bog-standard "freeview" package provides up to 35 "terrestrial" channels, including BBC Three and Four, E4, BBC News, Sky News, and CBBC. And that's not to mention perhaps the single most alluring alternative for today's bored youth, the internet, which has grown exponentially since 1998, the year in which the ECB took their home Tests off the Crown Jewels list. Even as recently as 11 years ago, the notion of a live event being streamed through a computer was still the stuff of fantasy. Last summer, Sky offered that very service to all its subscribers.

It takes a special dedication to commit seven hours a day, 35 hours a week, 175 hours a series, to watch an Ashes series end-to-end. As a point of comparison, you could watch the entire Premier League campaigns of Manchester United and Chelsea in that same period

The other unquantifiable factor is the sheer length of a Test match, and the astonishing scheduling commitment that it entails. Anyone can put aside 20 minutes to watch the Grand National, and most people of the right persuasion will set aside a three-hour window at the weekend to watch the FA Cup final. It takes a special dedication, however, to commit seven hours a day, 35 hours a week, 175 hours a series, to watch an Ashes series end-to-end.

As a point of comparison, you could watch the entire Premier League campaigns of Manchester United and Chelsea in that same period, with time left over to catch all the goals from the rest of the season. In fact, it is such a commitment that the BBC did not even bid for a highlights package when the rights were last reviewed in 2008, a fact that sent Giles Clarke into paroxysms of rage, particularly in light of their successful bid for that most exclusive of sports, Formula One.

But we all forget the gripes that the BBC's coverage regularly caused. Graham Gooch's 300th run at Lord's in 1990, for instance, was missed because they were showing the runners and riders for the 4.05 at Ascot. The news and weather would regularly cut into key passages of play, and even when Channel Four upped the ante with their groundbreaking coverage from 1999 to 2005, they still courted controversy when the traditional 11 o'clock start-time had to be brought forward by half an hour to allow their disgruntled regular viewers to tune into Hollyoaks on the dot of 6.30pm.

Clearly, cricket is too cumbersome a product to please everyone, no matter where it finds its home, but a dedicated sports channel is surely as good a place as any to set up home in an age in which the consumer is king - not least because the casual fan, who comes in search of the football, is more likely to hang around and take notice. What is more, for all the criticism of Sky Sports, they do have a vested interest in honouring their commitments to grassroots cricket, because it is only by getting their viewers up off their couches and into the nets that they can hope to perpetuate an interest in the sport.

Twenty percent of Sky's money is channelled directly into grassroots cricket, and that is the money that is most at threat if the government gets its way. Since 2006, 23,000 coaches have been brought through the system, including 10,000 in the last year alone, while the Chance to Shine programme, which seeks to bridge the gulf between clubs and schools, has got 800,000 children involved in the game since 2005.

Meanwhile the massive success enjoyed by England's women cricketers - Ashes winners and double World Champions - is directly attributable to the funding they have received that has enabled their key players to turn semi-professional. At the other end of the spectrum are the lucrative salaries that the elite men now enjoy. If, as the ECB fear, a third of their £85 million annual turnover could be wiped out by the decision, it will become ever more difficult to keep the lure of the IPL at bay.

It is especially unhelpful that only Ashes matches have been targeted - it is the equivalent of selling the rights to the Premier League but excluding all matches involving the big four. What is more, it enshrines the fallacy that England versus Australia is the only contest that counts. Like those bogbrush-haired fools Jedward on another of terrestrial TV's gems, X Factor, there is often a subtle distinction between the best and the most popular.

The Olympics is a showcase for the best, as are football World Cups and Wimbledon, which also happens to be the most prestigious of four Grand Slams. The 2005 Ashes was also a showcase for the best, because it featured the two leading teams in the world - one of which was arguably the greatest of all time - going toe-to-toe in a contest that England hadn't won for 18 years.

The 2009 Ashes, on the other hand, was a tussle between Nos. 2 and 5 in the world, while Ricky Ponting was the only globally renowned player to feature in all five matches. By 2016, who knows where in the rankings the two teams will lie, and who will be the star names. With the Rio Olympics and the European Football Championships also competing for airtime in that particularly crowded summer, cricket will surely find itself pining for its satellite certainties of old.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo