An independent panel recently recommended adding or returning several major sporting events to the so-called “crown jewels”, events of such national resonance that they should be shown on free to air television, accessible to all. One of the most controversial suggestions was that for cricket, that home Ashes Test series between England and Australia should be included. One of the reasons that prompted it was a comparison of viewing figures from the 2005 series shown on Channel 4 that had up to 8 million viewers and the 2009 series shown on Sky which got about 2 million at its highest point. There is currently no live international cricket being shown on terrestrial TV, and critics of the Sky deal claim that it will be impossible to interest a new generation in the game if they have no TV exposure to it.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) defends the deal on the grounds that it has brought a substantial increase of money into the game allowing among other things a significant increase in coaches. Giles Clarke of the ECB has lambasted the “shabby opportunism” of David Davies and the independent panel. To be fair, Clarke at least knows all about shabby opportunism. There have also been other criticisms of the recommendation, such as this one in Cricinfo from Andrew Miller. It’s a particularly fatuous argument, first making the point that we can’t know how the technological situation will have developed by 2016 (which is true, but meaningless, it’s not like it’s mandated that the coverage is on an analogue signal) and then highlighting that previous terrestrial TV only had limited channels to show cricket, something that has already changed. He then says that the privileging of the Ashes is a mistake as it isn’t always the highest quality test cricket being played. Quite apart from that not being the rationale for the crown jewels in the first place, I wonder if he’s really suggesting that it would be better for all test series between the top two ranked countries to be only available on terrestrial TV. I’m not convinced that there was a huge public demand to watch South Africa vs. Australia last winter.
Another argument is that football has not suffered from the Premiership being shown exclusively on subscription channels because of the presence of Match of the Day highlights on terrestrial TV. However, while football as a sport lends itself to a highlights format very well, test cricket really doesn’t. The appeal of a test is all about the building up of tension, the gradually changing balance of power between the sides. This cannot be transmitted in highlights, particularly not when 6 hours play has to be summarised into an hour on Channel 5, which has to include 10 minutes of analysis and 15 minutes of commercials. And while in football the tension increases while the action develops, in cricket the reverse is often true. The tension is actually most obvious in the gaps between balls and after the ball hits or passes the bat it actually diminishes (except on rare instances when there is the prospect of a catch or run-out). Much of the already limited time in highlights shows seems to be of balls running to the boundary which has its appeal – particularly when they come from your team’s bat – but is not going to glue anyone to the edge of their seat.
Given this you’d think that I would come firmly behind the suggested change, but in fact on balance I think it is a failed compromise. If watching live cricket on television is indispensable to arousing and maintaining the interest of youngsters in cricket then showing one series every 4 years is hardly going to fill that need. So either the government needs to go the whole hog and ensure that all England home test matches are televised (which I’d support) or they should let the ECB at least get full value for their Faustian bargain with Sky and hope they can use the money to mitigate the inevitable loss of relevance that the sport will get from being marginalised on satellite TV.