The England cricket team must now do something far harder than winning the Ashes, and come back from one down to win a three-Test series in Pakistan. Even if they do, there will not be another open-top bus tour round London on their return.
The match in Multan this week – which came close to matching the Ashes in its twists and turns and tension – attracted a mild burble of public interest, but there was no repeat of the UK-wide summertime frenzy. Pakistan are not such resonant opponents as Australia. A distant game on a sluggish pitch in a largely empty stadium is bound to be a downer. So is the time difference – it is hard to get whipped up for a 4.30am start, even in the era of 24-hour drinking.
Above all, these Tests are being shown on Sky Sports rather than terrestrial television, and the average audience has probably been pared down to 2-3 per cent of the 7m or 8m who watched the Ashes at peak.
This is nothing to do with cricket’s new TV contract. Live overseas cricket was non-existent on British screens until 15 years ago. Even when it became technically possible for the BBC, the game’s traditional broadcasting partner, to achieve satellite coverage from overseas, the corporation had other priorities. Sky drove things forward by showing the thrilling 1989-90 series from West Indies. It was a breakthrough for the game’s followers, and for satellite TV itself. Cricket helped the middle classes accept the notion of a dish on the roof, until then regarded as the naffest of accoutrements.
But now, under the contract signed a year ago between Sky Sports and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Sky has a total monopoly. For the next four years, not a ball will be bowled live – home or away – on any other channel. The deal was controversial enough when it was signed, and the rumbles are getting no softer.
The success of the Ashes merely emphasised what a disaster this is for cricket. There would have been no bus tour after The Oval either had it been in force at the time. It was terrestrial TV that drove the game into the forefront of public consciousness and brought a new generation of enthusiasts on to the streets.
My own view is that when the deal was done – when English cricket was merely stirring from its long slumber – the ECB had next to no choice. Its officials were hemmed in by the indifference of the terrestrial channels, Sky’s hardball negotiating style, their own seemingly weak position and the demands of their own electorate, the first-class counties, who were far more interested in money than public exposure. The board also had to contend with its own strategic blunders, committed over a seven-year period, which made the once unthinkable come true.
The ECB listened too hard to supposed experts who filled their heads with nonsense about terrestrial switch-offs and digital platforms, and missed the blindingly obvious: that the power of a free, mainstream channel to move a mass audience is priceless for a game battling to hold its own.
The detailed manoeuvring behind all this will be aired on Tuesday week when the Commons culture, media and sport select committee looks at the subject. Connoisseurs of the minutiae of cricket broadcasting politics (there are at least three of us) may learn something about the dealings between Lord’s, Whitehall and TV executives including the so-called gentlemen’s agreement of 1998.
Under this, the government agreed to take cricket off the list that forced home Tests to be shown on terrestrial TV in return for some kind of understanding that Sky would not actually snaffle them all. But who said what to whom? And could it in any way be binding?
We are in unknown territory. No major sport has ever completely vanished from most of the nation’s screens in this manner. Rugby union, which came close, soon realised its mistake. There is no comparison with football because the two huge international events, the World Cup and European Championship, are available to all.
Many hold-out cricket followers will cave in and buy a dish. But the opprobrium will not go away. Indeed, it seems to be growing, and it has the potential to cause serious PR damage to the whole BSkyB operation as well as cricket over the next four years. Thursday’s European ruling, which ended Sky’s monopoly of Premiership football, may provide some kind of template. Under this, it will probably retain five-sixths of the games but can no longer keep them all.
In cricket’s case, the initiative will probably have to come from Sky. Campaigners want it to offer someone – probably the BBC – the right to show two of the seven home Tests a summer. This now seems less absurd than it once did. Someone may well have to give ground somewhere, if only to shut the rest of us up.