December 2005

It's on Sky - get over it

Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell makes a plea that the public and press accept the ECB's decision to sell the broadcasting rights to Sky

Six years ago the BBC published a very nice book to mark 61 years of the corporation's coverage of cricket (And Welcome to the Highlights). Despite the authors' admirable disdain for rounded anniversaries, it seemed at the time a hasty rush to print, as if there would not be a 70th to celebrate. How prescient.

There were evocative images of old-fashioned microphones held by old-fashioned commentators (Swanton, Johnners and West were the poster boys on the cover) and there were swaths of loving text to confirm a solid marriage of two national institutions.

The summer game was always the sport most of us instinctively regarded as Auntie's own. I remember sitting up with my father in the middle of the night in a small country town in New South Wales a good 40 years or more ago, listening to Arlott and Fortune and all the others, the oscillating signal over 12,000 miles accentuating the quirks of their accents. It was spare, considered and altogether magical. All I knew about PBH May I learnt from Arlott. His lovely words, paid for and delivered by the BBC, were worth a thousand pictures.

They were innocent times, most of those 61 years, and none the worse for that. The clanking and creaking of the BBC, the shambling quaintness of the world's most revered communications monolith seemed to be in harmony with a game that had neither the inclination nor any urgent need to change.

It was never going to last. We knew that when Thatcher tore through every institution she could lay her hands on. The sleet of her dogma stung all our faces in the 1980s and 1990s, and, once she'd passed her baton to an unlikely successor in Blair, you could almost hear the tumbrels rumbling up to Bush House as the millennium approached. Sentiment died under the boot of pragmatism.

Rupert Murdoch's gimlet eye had already noted and devoured rugby union as an internationally lucrative brand by the time the BBC was unwittingly penning its own cricket obituary with that gorgeous coffee-table book. If he could persuade - ie pay - rugby to cut its ties with the past, there seemed no reason he couldn't do the same with cricket. And he did.

How kindly the cards fell for him. Simultaneously, the Government revealed it was removing cricket from its `A list', the supposed crown jewels of sport. It was shifted to the `B list', a limbo in the sporting heavens, neither heaven nor hell, and a pool into which anyone could dip.

I remember having a drink with Denis Howell, Labour's former sports minister, about that time when the old Birmingham warhouse (elevated then to the Lords but still wanting to be called Denis) was leading the fight to keep our sports treasures for the largest possible audience. As we sipped his favourite whisky, looking out on the Thames from the members' bar and talking daftly about Blake (William), Bedser (Alec) and `that bloody man Murdoch', a steady flow of Tory peers came up to shake his hand.

He'd hit a nerve. Nobody wanted Murdoch to steal our sports. This wasn't ideological. It was about national identity, about commonality, about the glue of our culture. And, sad as it is to admit, it was doomed.

There are a lot of people who believe otherwise but Murdoch is not the devil incarnate. He is a ruthless and wholly unsentimental moneymaker, a man who has become obscenely rich and powerful by trampling on the sensitivities of anyone unfortunate enough to stand in his way. But buying up cricket for the next four years does not make him Adolf Hitler's natural son and heir. To Murdoch - and to all the other negotiators - it was simply business. It would be nice if it were not so brutal, so unarguable, so clear-cut, but that's capitalism.

There has been some seriously upside-down logic applied to Murdoch's £220m coup. Top of the list is the notion that the proper home for the game is on free-to-air terrestrial television, preferably on the BBC. But the BBC's remit as a public-service broadcaster does not entitle the corporation to preferential treatment in the marketplace, however unpalatable a fact that is.

The truth is - a truth I could hardly imagine embracing when dropping off to sleep with Arlott burring in my ear all those years ago - the BBC didn't want cricket enough. The buffoons running the place did not have the will, the wit or the courage to challenge Murdoch. Nor did Channel 4. Which makes the latest calls to overhaul the deal so pathetic. What world are these people living in? The game is going to Sky. Live with it. Or buy a dish. Or go to a game. They will snap your arm off at Derby. Or Northampton. Or Taunton.

Rarely can a stable door have been bolted more belatedly. We have to make the best of it. It's not all bad. One day, Sky will achieve its precious `near-total reach', just like the Beeb. And then it won't be an issue.

What will harm the game is lack of investment. I'd prefer to think that those kids who were so excited by Freddie Flintoff on Channel 4 last summer, and who might be encouraged to stay in the game with programmes paid for by some of that Sky money, will be inspiring a new audience of young gobsmacked fans in a few years time - whatever channel the cricket is on.

Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer of The Observer