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When the England and Wales Cricket Board won their political fight last June to get Test matches removed from the list of those national sporting events which could only be transmitted on free terrestrial television, they can hardly have anticipated the effect of this agreement.
The deal which won Channel 4 and Sky Sports the rights to cricket coverage over the next four years, signed at Lord's yesterday, will bring a further £103 million to cricket and guarantees all licence-paying viewers ball-by-ball coverage of all but a few hours of 21 of the 25 home Tests between 1999 and 2002.
Sky will cover one Test a year, a first for them, and will transmit all of the 10 internationals due in triangular tournaments to be held each future season after next year's World Cup.
Channel 4's triumph, which had much to do with a sales pitch described by ECB managers as "brilliant" and "tremendous", is the BBC's chagrin. Of all their sporting traditions, this was the oldest and the most loyally supported by viewers.
They broadcast the first televised Test, England v Australia at Lord's, in 1938 and they have been covering home Tests regularly each season since 1946, when Brian Johnston shared commentary with the future MP, Aidan Crawley, and the radio pioneer, Teddy Wakelam.
Test Match Special will at least keep the BBC link alive on Radio Four: they have exclusive radio rights to ball-by-ball coverage until at least the year 2000.
Refuting a BBC claim that the chequebook had been the decisive factor, Michael Jackson, Channel 4's bright young chief executive, claimed that his company's bid had been "only" £3-£4 million more than the BBC's. A spokesman for the corporation expressed extreme disappointment. "We made a huge increase in our offer, many times the rate of inflation, but there was no way we could match the offer by Channnel 4, who were clearly prepared to pay a significant premium," he said.
The BBC's new controller of sport, Mike Miller, added that the BBC had more than doubled their former contract fee four years ago, when the overall income from the BBC and Sky was £60 million over four years. Channel 4, he said, were "cherry-picking" and paying more than the market value. But, he added: "We're not going to roll over and play dead. We'll see things coming back to the BBC in future."
The BBC's final live cricket coverage, for the next four years at least, will take place next summer when they share World Cup coverage with Sky. The final on June 20 will be an emotional occasion for Richie Benaud and other stalwarts of a coverage rather unfairly damned with faint praise by the ECB yesterday, although some of the younger commentators can no doubt expect offers.
Not that the Channel 4 approach is going to be, according to the chief executive, disrespectful to the traditions of cricket. "Channel 4," Jackson said, "will bring its distinctive approach to cricket. Our goal is to help reconnect cricket with a younger and diverse multi-cultural audience."
Their coverage, however, will not be uninterrupted. Like Sky, they will have frequent advertising, though Jackson promised that they "would not interrupt the flow of the game" and for about 2.5 hours on Saturdays they would cover horse racing instead, keeping faith with their first and successful foray into live sports broadcasting. Even then cricket fans would be able to watch the coverage on a digital channel.
Sky's head of sport, Vic Wakeling, said that covering one home Test a season - which still has to be announced - was "another landmark" for his company. He added: "We are equally excited about the revamp of one-day cricket. Triangular tournaments will become one of the sporting highlights of future summers."
Sky will also televise the National League, the 16-match, 45-over county competition which replaces the AXA League next season. A sponsor will surely not be far behind. How much championship cricket will be televised is unclear but Sky will have the rights to all county cricket except the NatWest Trophy, which will be on Channel 4 from the quarter-final stage onwards from next season, with a final on Sunday rather than Saturday.
Sky's coverage from next year will also include the Super Cup, which the ECB say is not necessarily merely a one-off experiment next year, matches between counties and touring teams, under-19 games and women's matches. Channel 4 will have a weekly magazine programme each weekend throughout the summer and their coverage of live games is intended to be more analytical and conversational, including regular interviews with players. Highlights of one-day internationals will be shown in the early evening on Channel 4 and Sky will continue to show highlights of Tests.
With further sponsorships to follow, the board are some way further down the road this morning to the £300 million which the chairman says is the amount required to keep cricket as the national summer sport but a note of sober realism needs to be struck amid the wave of optimism which has swept out of the game's headquarters in the last two days. England will need to win a sizeable proportion of the increased number of Tests and internationals if such wide coverage is not to become an embarrassment.
More: Close of play for cricket on BBC
By Alison Boshoff and Tom Leonard
THE BBC suffered another major blow yesterday when it lost the right to televise home Test matches, which it has held since 1938.
In a £103 million combined bid by Channel 4 and Sky, the corporation also lost the right to cover all significant one-day cricket except for the World Cup. The move is certain to infuriate traditionalists, not least because of the introduction of commercial breaks and Channel 4's expressed intention to introduce "fresher, younger, more multi-cultural" coverage.
"It won't be three old duffers in a box talking cricket any more," said a spokesman. "It will be dynamic and multi-cultural and all the things that Channel 4 is. Cricket has a stuffy image because of the way that the BBC have covered it and we have a mission to make that different."
Perhaps more controversial than the intrusion of commercials is the intention to shift Test match cricket to a digital channel for two hours on Saturdays when C4 is covering horse racing on its main channel. As things stand, that would deprive around 75 per cent of the population of the chance to watch cricket at that time.
The BBC said it was "extremely disappointed" to be beaten in the bidding. A spokesman said: "In the end it all came down to money." The end of the 60-year association severs a tie dearly beloved of cricket traditionalists and is a heavy blow to the corporation, which has not been able to keep up with sharp rises in the prices demanded to show sport.
It had also lost live coverage of England home rugby union internationals, Formula One motor racing and Ryder Cup golf, in addition to the earlier loss of FA Cup football. A BBC source said: "It is a very bitter day for us. The unthinkable has finally happened. We now have no cricket on television apart from the World Cup every four years. We've lost the lot."
The move was, however, welcomed by some senior cricketing figures, who said the new deal - a substantial increase on the existing £60 million contract - would be good for them and the future of the game. Jim Cumbes, Lancashire's chief executive, said: "They have had cricket very cheaply for a long time so perhaps the chicken has returned to roost."
Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, said: "This is a marvellous deal for cricket. Channel 4 have presented a lively, invigorating approach. We are looking forward to a strong and successful partnership. We are sorry that our long and happy association with BBC television has come to an end but we need to re-launch cricket in a fresh and exciting way."
Matthew Fleming, the chairman of the Professional Cricketers' Association, welcomed the change. He said Channel 4's new relationship with cricket could attract a new audience to the sport. He said: "We have got more money for cricket out of this and a different channel involved and having someone like Channel 4 with links to the sport may attract people who have not previously been interested, which has to be good for cricket."
Channel 4, which will show all but one of the home Tests for the next four years, promises a revolution in coverage. A spokesman said it had outbid the BBC by only £1 million and that the reason that the ECB had chosen it was because it promised to revitalise coverage of the sport.
However, the BBC said in a statement: "We made a huge increase in our offer - many times the rate of inflation - but there was no way that we could match the offer by Channel 4, who were clearly prepared to pay a significant premium. We offered the ECB a range of new programming, marketing and promotional ideas but in the end it was all about money."
BBC sources expressed surprise at Channel 4's decision to start covering such a mainstream sport because of its programming remit to "cater for audiences not served by other broadcasters".
But a spokesman said the channel saw no contradiction. "We can quite easily reconcile this with our remit. We're putting a big emphasis on the fact that cricket is a multi-cultural game and appeals to a large number of people in the West Indian and Asian communities. A big part of Channel 4's aim is to target those viewers."
The spokesman said Channel 4 would give full coverage to each day's play. On Saturdays, coverage would begin on the main channel, switch to the digital channel after lunch, and return to the main channel after tea. Welsh cricket fans could find themselves unable to watch cricket at all. The nation's equivalent to Channel 4, S4C, said it was not involved in the acquisition of the television rights and was not aware of the station's scheduling plans. Glamorgan, who won the County Championship in 1997, are seeking clarification of S4C's plans.
The loss of Test cricket is the latest in a long list of major sporting events to have slipped out of the BBC's grasp and into the hands of its commercial rivals. The corporation, which has been steadily losing broadcasting rights ever since the arrival of ITV in 1961, still boasts about 40 different sports contracts but many of the most glamorous events are not among them.
What remains of its sports coverage is light on football, rugby and cricket, and reliant instead on less popular sports such as golf, tennis and horse racing. Among the top events still in the BBC's control are the Wimbledon tennis championships, the Olympic Games through to 2008, the 2000 European football championships, both the Open and US Masters golf tournaments and the World and European Athletics Championships.