Frank Keating

Testing time for Sky

Testing time for Sky

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With 2004’s multinational motley done, dusted and delivered, other activities can bloom. The jingo-jangle palaver and babel of the Olympics, European soccer, and the Ryder Cup are now consigned to musty files, and a happy new year is herald to less hyperbole and ballyhoo. The world athletics gala at Helsinki in August will work up a passing tizz as to who’s on drugs or not, and whether Kelly Holmes will be fit or bothered enough to make the starting line or, indeed, if Paula Radcliffe is ditto enough to make the Finnish finishing line. The new year’s three most delectable asterisks for your diary warm the midsummer: rugby’s British Lions Tests in New Zealand (25 June–9 July); golf’s Open at its ancestral St Andrews home (14–17 July); and cricket’s lustily awaited Ashes challenge between England and Australia (21 July–12 September).

For stay-at-homes, the rugby will be televised exclusively on Sky; the Open on BBC; and the cricket live only on Channel 4. Fair shares: one subscriber-satellite channel and two ‘free’ terrestrial channels. Enjoy. Particularly because, in the case of cricket anyway, 2005 will be the last summer that the nation’s dishless millions will be able to watch live transmissions of England’s Test matches. The England and Wales Cricket Board’s Christmas present was the £200 million deal to allow Mr Murdoch’s satellite broadcaster exclusive live rights to all England’s home Test matches for the next five years. It not only represents the end of Channel 4’s breezily bright seven-year coverage of home Tests, but a sad finis to terrestrial ‘free’ television’s 66-year-old involvement — the fledgling BBC first relayed fuzzy live pictures from the Lord’s Test of 1938.

Since then televised cricket must have kindled, fired, inspired and nurtured the game’s appeal for incalculable numbers of successive generations. Which makes, on the face of it, the ECB’s sellout to Sky seem appallingly short-sighted. Cricket is already dodo-dead in most schools; with no accessible broadcasting to inspire or beguile, the game will unravel itself from the fabric of English life in no time. Last summer terrestrial Channel 4 covered the first Test against New Zealand; almost five million viewers watched it live. A week later, as a one-off, Sky alone covered the second Test; only 900,000 viewers tuned in. Enough said. All right, English cricket’s 18 first-class county clubs are broke and desperate, but it would be an unforgivable blot if Sky’s handsome windfall meant only them upping their raffle prizes and buying a few more half-hearted foreign ‘stars’. But if they used their bonus creatively to market the game with a new verve and skill in schools and junior clubs, well, why not?

And there are other compensations once the steaming fury of a romantic’s initial ire begins to waft away. For a start, Sky covers cricket uncommonly well (most of its pioneering 1990s innovations were picked up by Channel 4) and its fidelity to overseas cricket has been irreproachable and deserving of reward. The new deal means continued health for the England team and its ‘feeder’ academy. Sky’s loot means that no county team will expire, that BBC radio’s Test Match Special will continue its treasured chunter, that Channel 4 can get on with (too often its preference) horse-racing uninterrupted, and that, out of the blue, the (terrestrial) TV Channel Five has guaranteed a peak-hour 45-minute highlights spot on every evening of any Test match. Doubtless they will sign up Richie Benaud to do the whispering honours. When the contract runs out in 2010, Richie will be 80. There’s a New Year thought.