The news that cricket is returning to Channel 4 for the forthcoming series between India and England has been greeted with relief by cricket fans and absolute mystification by everyone else. In 2005, after the greatest Ashes series any of us will ever see, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) signed a long-term deal with Sky Sports, which made the ECB a fortune and blew a huge hole in cricket’s potential television audience. To this day I have cricket-mad friends who refuse to sign up to Sky Sports, either because it is owned by Rupert Murdoch or because it’s so bloody expensive, or possibly both.
It costs me about £1000 a year to watch cricket on Sky, and it’s no consolation to know that the money has gone from me to Virgin Media to Rupert to the ECB to line the pockets of England players, who are now much better remunerated thanks to the Sky deal. I paid for Kevin Pietersen’s last flash car personally. I hope he crashes it into a bollard.
The move will mystify everyone else because cricket has fallen off the map as far as most people are concerned. Sir Alastair Cook’s entire Test career, all 12,472 runs of it, was witnessed by no one at all on free-to-air TV, unless you count the tatty highlights packages occasionally shown on Channel 5.
The dedicated cricket fan, such as I, has been well served by the Sky Sports deal, especially since Sir Ian Botham was forceably retired from commentary, but we tend to be older, richer and possibly madder than people whose lives have not been touched by cricket in any way. The destructive nature of the Sky Sports deal has probably been best reflected by the decline of the amateur, or village, game around the country. I run a cricket team of old gits, and every year at least one club we play folds because it can no longer find enough players. Leagues implode and cricket pitches are sold to property developers. Every fixture secretary says the same thing: the young people aren’t interested.
And it’s not the young people’s fault, for how can you be inspired by something you have never actually seen or experienced? One could blame Sky Sports and indeed Rupert for this, but that’s like blaming the lion that is eating you for eating you. It’s a lion, that’s what it does. No, the problem is with the blazers who run the ECB, who by long tradition are too dim to get a proper job but went to a good school and polish their shoes every morning until you can see your reflection in them. They have spent years fretting that young people have no interest in the game, purely because of a situation they themselves created. Their solution is a new competition called The Hundred, a variety of instant whip cricket that is even shorter in duration than T20 and has been expressly designed to appeal to the ravaged attention spans of the young.
No one who loves cricket in these islands (and that is no exaggeration - literally no one) thinks The Hundred is a good idea, other than the ECB. It’s the wrong answer to a question that should never have been asked. So the Channel 4 deal is something to celebrate, and the fact that the India-England series, being played in India, starts at 4 every morning and doesn’t go on much past midday means that it won’t disturb any of the channel’s more important evening programming. Now all we have to worry about is who they will get to commentate. Everyone good is either dead or contracted elsewhere. Sir Ian Botham is free, though, thus proving the old saw that in every silver lining there’s a cloud.