Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sky’s the limit for English cricket

James Murdoch’s recent attack on the BBC will have surprised nobody – anyone who dares to inhibit News International’s ability to make money (and the BBC certainly does that) can expect to be in the firing line. Viewers and listeners (and we must now included surfers) of the Beeb’s output get astonishing value for money and whilst it is part of the national character to diminish our establishment, including the BBC, would any of us really hand broadcasting over completely to the likes of Sky? Which brings us to cricket. On the final day of the Oval Test match in 2005 Channel 4’s free to air coverage got 8.4 million viewers – and that on a working Monday. This year Sky’s subscription only satellite and cable transmission was watched by 1.92 million fans – and on a Sunday to boot. Whilst cost was not the only factor in play it was obviously by far the most important.

At the ICC’s celebratory two day centenary conference in Oxford last month the generally genial tone of the proceedings was only upset at one point. The distinguished and candid Australian cricket writer and journalist Gideon Haigh was chairing a panel which was discussing the role of the media in cricket. Haigh made the point that the move away from free to air live international cricket in Britain meant that the millions of serendipitous viewers – the ones who are not a died in the wool cricket fans but just occasional dippers into cricket if it is of interest – would not be able to do that this year unless they had a Sky Sports subscription. The figures above prove that Haigh was right - literally millions of potential viewers could not see the coverage. Haigh’s point was that if it is part of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) mission to widen the appeal of cricket in Britain (it is) then not to have free-to-air access to live cricket is a funny way to go about it. When Gideon Haigh had made his point he was shouted at by a voice from the back of the room where none other than ECB Chairman Giles Clarke began an uninvited harangue. Clarke’s rant was mainly directed at the BBC and their alleged failure to bid when the television contract came on offer. It was an unpleasant moment which Haigh handled will skill and Clarke eventually shut up – but his bias in favour of Sky and against the national broadcaster was clear to all present.

This summer News International’s flagship British newspaper, The Times, has been the “Official newspaper of England Cricket” – quite what this means other than that spectators at the Test match grounds receive a free copy and that the ECB’s link with the newspaper is advertised I’m not sure - presumably The Times pays for the privilege. If so it does suggest that the cosy relationship between the ECB and Sky applies also to other media owned by News International. He who pays the piper calls the tune and whilst I would not wish to imply that independent-minded writers and broadcasters in the Murdoch stable like Mike Atherton, Simon Barnes, Nasser Hussain and Christopher Martin-Jenkins would ever kow-tow to the ECB party line they are also unlikely to cut off the hand that feeds them. The ECB is the piper and its paymaster is substantially the “Dirty Digger” and his empire – witness the nine limited overs matches between England and Australia which are to take place in the coming weeks all, of course, covered live on Sky. If sporting considerations were paramount rather than television income rights then would there really be quite so many one day matches? Of course not.

There is plenty to criticise about the structure, priorities and administration of English cricket at present and in many ways The Ashes triumph was in spite of rather than because of the best efforts of the ECB’s management team. We need all the media to hold the ECB objectively to account without fear or favour. This includes Sky and The Times and the Sun – and it also includes Britain’s leading cricket magazine “The Wisden Cricketer” which is also now a Sky/Murdoch medium. In The Times 24 page Ashes supplement this week there was no mention of the fact that a major difference between this years Ashes and those of 2005 is that far, far fewer people will have seen them on television. Nor was there much discussion of the dearth of batting options that the England selectors had which almost led to the recall of Mark Ramprakash because the County system is patently failing to deliver. Indeed Chris Martin-Jenkins will have comforted the ECB by his assertion that the County game “…provides the players for a national squad that cannot operate in a vacuum,” and that “Jonathan Trott’s wonderfully composed debut…proved that the [county] system still produces tough cricketers.” I suspect that Trott’s toughness was honed more in the South Africa that he grew up in rather than on the County grind! No - for an objective view of county cricket you needed to go to The Guardian’s supplement where Mike Selvey wrote insightfully that “…the structure of domestic competition has to be raised. A new level created in fact. A proposal might be for a six-team competition…with neither overseas players nor Kolpaks or any other flags of convenience. Each to play the other once over four days. Elite players will be made available where possible. It will never happen…too many vested interests.”

Mike Selvey is right – there are too many vested interests and these interests, the counties and the News International media especially, conspire together with the ECB to ensure that the real structural changes that English cricket has needed for so long will be very difficult to achieve. And the one downside of the splendid Ashes win is that it might allow Giles Clarke and his cohorts at the ECB and in the counties to argue that all is well in their kingdom. It’s time for a proper review of the whole fabric of English cricket and for the ECB at the top to acknowledge that everything they do must be subservient not to their media paymasters’ wishes nor to their eighteen county electorate – but to the overriding need to have a successful England team, not just one that has a few fleetingly happy moments.

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