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Cricket's return to relevance and terrestrial TV

Batsman, cameraman: Joe Root can do just about everything Getty Images

Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, was - to put it mildly - the cat who got the cream as he walked into the Lord's media centre on Friday afternoon to answer questions about a groundbreaking TV rights deal.

"Are you interviewing us?" one senior member of the press corps asked, as Harrison prefaced his round-table chat by inviting the assembled journalists to give their own verdict on the day's news.

That in itself was a revealingly self-confident gesture, born of the knowledge that the most important rights tender in the history of English cricket could scarcely have panned out better for the board, or by extension (and rarely can this be said with a straight face in the grubby world of sports business) the sport that the ECB represents.

To be clear, that is not quite the same as saying this was English cricket's perfect day. Too many short-sighted decisions have been made over too long a time frame for the sport's mounting problems to be eradicated in a single hit. The details of this latest announcement cannot hope to satisfy every supporter - fans of Test cricket may be concerned at its secondary status, for instance, while there will be those who fear that the ECB has swapped one existential crisis for another by forcing through a raft of constitutional changes to make its new products as cosmetically alluring as possible.

But let us also be clear. This was the deal that could not afford to fail, and on the terms under which it was conducted, it has been little short of a triumph.

Harrison can take a lot of the credit for that. As a former executive at IMG, his surprise appointment in October 2014 as David Collier's successor had been made almost entirely with this rights tender in mind, as the ECB - and, crucially, Sky Sports as well - began to face up to the realities of more than a decade of mutual over-reliance.

In the 13 years that had elapsed since English cricket took the plunge and threw in its lot with the cash-rich but context-poor world of subscription TV, the received wisdom had been that reach and revenue were mutually exclusive. Since 2006, Sky's cash had helped to transform the ECB itself into a titanic entity in the British sporting landscape, while its sympathetic stewarding of an at-times awkward sport has been genre-defining. But in a pure numbers game, Sky's audience had consistently paled compared to those days of yore when the national summer sport had been pumped out, reluctantly at times but consistently all the same, by the national broadcaster.

The consensus going into this rights cycle, therefore - shrewdly accepted by both host and lead broadcaster - was that at least a partial return to that mainstream was needed to help convert the uninitiated and propagate a business model that had been in desperate need of new blood. "Sky have invested very heavily in our future but it's not purely about the money," said Harrison. "It's about a belief that we can create a transformational environment for cricket going forward. We've entered into a different paradigm where that partnership is concerned."

And so now, with Sky's clear blessing, the BBC is back on board, set to bestow its largesse on the sport once again after a hiatus of 21 years. In the interim, innumerable executives have argued, from one rights cycle to the next, that the sporting landscape has shifted so rapidly that the traditional free-to-air debate cannot possibly still be relevant. And, on the one hand, that is undeniably true - the importance of digital clip rights, for instance, a fundamental aspect of the BBC's side of the bargain for 2020-2024, could hardly have been factored in back in 1998. But on the other hand, there are still some aspects of the old order that retain a near-mythical status - take Harrison's assertion, for instance, that the primetime highlights will be pumped out on BBC2, rather than BBC4, presumably to catch those casual seekers of Gardeners World or Newsnight, rather than cater to an audience that, in straying from the normal channels, might already have known what it was looking for.

It is this opportunity for random access, rather than the actual "free" aspect of the free-to-air debate, that is arguably the most significant factor of the BBC's return to the fray. Writing in Wisden in 2005, the editor Matthew Engel predicted that the longer-term effects of cricket's absence from the mainstream would take "a generation to unfold", and sure enough, we have reached that tipping point now. There are teenagers and young adults missing from the game today who, with only the merest of initial glimpses, could have been ranging from casual fans to candidates for national honours by now. Instead, the sport is such a mystery to them that many will not have watched a single one of Alastair Cook's England-record tally of 11,057 runs. Even allowing for gross apathy, how many kids of the 1980s and 1990s could have said the same of Graham Gooch or David Gower?

That's not to say that the BBC wasn't complicit in the decisions that caused the game to be cut off from its fan base. In 2004, when Sky swooped in to become the ECB's exclusive broadcast partner, they did so amid a climate of disillusionment from cricket's terrestrial options. The BBC didn't even table a bid for the rights that it had lost to Channel 4 five years earlier, and when that pattern was repeated for the 2008 tender, it led Giles Clarke, the then-chairman, to rail against the broadcaster for nevertheless finding enough cash to bid a estimated £250 million for motor racing.

"How many people play Formula One?" he had said, acidly. "The BBC could have used that money to buy two Twenty20 internationals a year."

Well, they've done just that now, and pitched in for ten as-yet unidentified domestic T20s as well, all the while being kept well clear of the tasty bout of arm-wrestling going on above them. It is a credit to the careful positioning of the ECB's tender that Sky and BT Sports were given the room to flex their muscles and propel the central broadcasting deal to vertigo-inducing heights, without allowing the bottom line to take top billing.

On the contrary, the chance for those broadcasters to become something more than just customers appears to have been an alluring proposition, particularly for Sky, whose grip on the Premier League football market has been loosened in recent seasons by the ground-shaking sums of cash that BT has been willing to fling onto the pitch, but whose determination to cling onto cricket has been redoubled as a consequence. At £1.1 billion, the overall package is more than double the £445 million that Sky coughed up at the last auction in 2012 - and adds up to what Harrison described as a " gamechanger for cricket in this country".

"We set out 18 months ago to get a balance of reach, revenue and exposure," Harrison said. "Now we have strategic partnerships where previously we had purely transactional relationships, and that's a hugely exciting moment for us."

How those partnerships will manifest themselves will be fascinating to behold. For Sky's part, perhaps the most fundamental aspect will be their role in moulding the new domestic T20 league - to suit both their broadcasting purposes and their stated commitment to the ECB's participation agenda.

The details of the tournament have been left deliberately vague up until now, precisely because the final sign-off was always intended to be a gift to the successful bidder. But Sky's commitment to English cricket has never been in doubt, and they now have the chance to take command of one of the central planks of the new rights cycle, where previously they would have been restricted both by the prerequisites of the international calendar, and by the ECB's Articles of Association. It can only be assumed in the circumstances, given what they know of the sport in which they have invested so heavily down the years, that they will be as sympathetic to the game's heritage as they reasonably can be.

"We have ambitious plans for the T20," said Harrison. "It's got to do a big job for us to bring new audiences to the game, because we are thinking about new audiences in pretty much everything we are doing. We want this to be a joint effort with the biggest media buyer in the country, putting its shoulder to the wheel to get more kids playing."

As for the BBC, their input is likely to be more nuanced. There may be a limit to how much impact their annual allocation of live games can realistically have, but that is arguably true when it comes to the Beeb's occasional broadcasting of FA Cup matches and England football internationals as well. What cannot be in any doubt, in both cases, is their ability to turn the stars of those teams into household names through the breadth and depth of their coverage, as indeed they have done with Team GB's medallists at a succession of summer and winter Olympics.

And on that front, cricket has watched jealously from the sidelines for too long. One of the most telltale signs of the sport's invisibility in recent years has come every December at the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards, a popularity contest as much as a measure of outright excellence, but one that still manages to capture the imagination of casual sports fans like few other events. England's cricketers haven't produced a winner since Andrew Flintoff for the 2005 Ashes, while they've warranted just a handful of token nominations since cricket left terrestrial TV the following summer.

With due respect to Danny Willett, Kadeena Cox and Adam Peaty, three of last year's nominees, the likes of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali should be shoo-ins for such recognition year in, year out. From 2020 onwards, they will at least be back in the picture. And, leaving aside for the time being all other arguments about the look and feel of the deal, that fundamental return to relevance can only be for the greater good of the game.