One of the key reasons that the Football World Cup captures people’s imagination is because everyone can watch each match as they are broadcast on free-to-watch channels. This means it is a collective, national experience.
Imagine what it would be like if the World Cup matches were just on Sky and the rest of us had to make do with just highlights? It would be rubbish.
But this is exactly what has happened to Test cricket since the ECB sold the rights to Sky back in 2005. Just this week, the first Test Match against Sri Lanka at Lord’s ended in unbelievable drama. England needed two wickets to win in the final over. Stuart Broad got a wicket with the first ball and then with two balls left the last Sri Lankan batsman was given out LBW and the England team celebrated wildly. But the decision was immediately reviewed by the batsman and the replays showed he had hit the ball and the decision was reversed. England failed to win by the thinnest of margins.
It was Test cricket at its absolute best. But how many children actually watched it and experienced the drama?
It was this kind of excitement which enfolded in just about every match in the iconic 2005 Ashes series where England regained the Ashes for the first time in 18 long years. Every match was a classic and every single ball could be watched on terrestrial TV. It was a series that did more for the popularity of cricket than any other in history – the vast crowds and passionate support made it feel almost like a religious revival.
I was at the Oval with my brother on the final day to see the famous win and I will never forget it. The next day I was in Trafalgar Square to see the open top bus tour. It was scenes that I never imagined would happen – cricket breaking into the realm that football normally occupies and loads of children, men and women sharing in the celebration of victory.
The worse decision
But right at the moment of biggest opportunity came the worst decision. For this amazing series was the last one ever to be broadcast on free-to-watch TV. I am sure there was a good ‘business-case’ for the decision – but the implications have been disastrous.
England won the Ashes four years later. Sure, the series was not as exciting but the key difference was that a tiny fraction of people could actually watch it. Cricket fans celebrated but there was nothing like the public buy-in.
Good for the few
I know plenty of people will point to the good things that Sky have done. The coverage has improved with loads of new technology and investment. But, as with football, will more money really help the game itself? As I see it, the few have done well and the many have lost out.
The thing is that good, live international cricket is the best marketing that the game can possibly have. The legendary status of the 2005 series or others such as Botham’s 1981 Ashes would never have happened if only a few could have watched it. The BBC coverage enabled the country to experience the thrill and drama: free to watch TV means that the national team can be owned by the nation. But those days are gone.
This season I have just taken on the management of the under 11s cricket team which both my boys play in. Their enthusiasm for the game has meant that half the team is now made up of kids from their school. We have had a run of four incredibly exciting matches which have all gone down to the last over. It has been brilliant to see kids in state schools being able to have the opportunity to play proper cricket.
When I was at primary school, over 50 schools in the Croydon area played hard-ball cricket. Now only 8 do and most of them are private schools. Whatever millions Sky give the ECB, this fact is a complete disaster for English cricket
And this is not because cricket is unpopular. As we see with twenty20, the game has enduring appeal but too few are getting the opportunities to watch it and even less the opportunity to play it.
Something I know for sure, is that if more kids had been able to watch the amazing end to the Test Match this week, then more kids would want to experience that kind of drama for themselves.