Richard Caborn, the sports minister, told a House of Commons select committee that there was almost no chance of a deal being done which would keep English Test cricket on free-to-air terrestrial TV.
"If you are asking me 'Can a deal be done?', I don't think it can," Caborn said. "I am making no bones about it. I am supporting the ECB in what it has done."
And David Collier, the ECB's chief executive, said that the 220 million deal with BSkyB would safeguard the future of English cricket while alternative proposals would have meant a shortfall of around 80 million.
"If we reduced the income of the game by some 30 or 40%, how do I say to [England coach] Duncan Fletcher 'By the way, we're going to close the national academy; by the way, we can't have central contracts'," Collier said. "We have thousands of clubs desperate for cash. We want to put more into them ... we can't do that in an environment where our income is going down by 40%."
Those figures were disputed by Andy Duncan, Channel 4's chief executive, who argued that a deal by which Channel 4 would have shared with BSkyB would only have cost the ECB around 20-25 million over the four-year contract which runs from 2006.
"Had the ECB set out to get some sort of balanced equation, I believe they could have got sufficient money - though maybe not as much money as they have got," he said. "The shame of it for cricket as a whole is that there is no live cricket of any form available to three-quarters of the audience in this country. The next live Ashes cricket could be eight or nine years away, if indeed we ever get another live Ashes on terrestrial television." Channel 4 lost an estimated 10 million a year on its cricket coverage because it could never generate enough income from advertising.
However, supporters of the BSkyB deal point out that Duncan was far less enthusiastic about keeping cricket on Channel 4 before the commercial success of the Ashes series. "The channel only wanted part of the summer season and what they were prepared to pay didn't give the ECB any maneuverability," explained Jeff Foulser, the chairman of Sunset & Vine, the production company that made Channel 4's cricket programmes.
Lord Smith, the former culture secretary, later told the inquiry that in 1998 Lord MacLaurin, the then chairman of the ECB, had given a commitment to keep cricket on terrestrial TV. Accused by conservative MP Tim Yeo of "reneging" on the agreement, Caborn replied: "There was no written agreement between the Government and the ECB. It was a wish list. The world has moved on."
"I think the ECB can be very proud of where they have brought cricket from," Caborn continued. "They have done an absolutely first-class job. If it had not been for the investment I don't think we would have been competing to be No. 1 in the world. I think it's to the credit of the ECB that they took cricket by the scruff of the neck and we are now No. 2 in the world and competing to be No. 1. If we can get more on free-to-air I'll do that, but I don't want it to be to the detriment of the England team vying to be No. 1. I don't want to go back to being eighth in the world with the under-achievement that goes with it."