Offside, 2 September
That’s enough middle-class whingeing about Murdoch getting his mitts on the cricket.
This week I invested in a short-wave world radio so I could follow the fifth Ashes Test while on holiday in that cricket-free zone known as France (though, in truth, most of the planet would fit that description). I won’t have access to a TV while on holiday but as long as I can listen to Aggers and Blowers nattering away about sixes, carrot cakes and video umpires I’ll be happy. Cricket is unlike any other sport in that the radio commentary is as good as, if not better, than watching the game live.
The fact that there is no imminent threat to BBC Radio 4’s Test Match Special, one of Britain’s most enduring institutions, makes it difficult to see why there’s so much fuss about that Sky TV securing exclusive rights to live Test match coverage. When the Sky deal was struck at the end of last year there was a minor commotion among the chattering classes but the rest of Britain didn’t register at all. Cricket? Who watches cricket anyway?
But now, cricket is sexy again and people who, until very recently, couldn’t tell their gullies from their googlies have been declaring their love for the game. A record audience of 8.4million viewers tuned in to watch the closing stages of the fourth Test at Trent Bridge last Sunday. Predictably the Lazarus-like resurgence of interest in a hitherto moribund sport has reignited the row over TV rights.
The argument goes that the greedy, myopic England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has lost a golden opportunity to widen the audience for cricket in Britain. ‘It’s bound to have an impact that in a class of 30 11-year-olds less than half will be able to watch cricket’, fumed Labour MP John Grogan. ‘The other major sports, football and rugby, have some balance between terrestrial and satellite coverage, but cricket alone has completely sold out to the Murdoch gold.’
Following England’s victory at Trent Bridge, Liberal Democrat sports spokesman Don Foster has demanded a review of the government’s decision to remove Test cricket from the protected list of sports that must be shown on free-to-air terrestrial TV or else the entire social fabric starts to unravel. ‘It is frankly appalling that cricket is not on the list’, said Foster. ‘I wrote to the secretary of state before the Old Trafford Test urging a review and the latest success demonstrates the need for a rethink even more clearly.’
The truth is that the people who don’t want to hand over their money to Rupert Murdoch are largely middle-class whingers who could comfortably afford a Sky subscription anyway. Invariably these misers have couched their tight-fisted campaign against the venal scourge of pay television in the language of social inclusion. Yes, it’s nice to get things for free but there is no such thing as a right to watch cricket. Cricket is a form of entertainment, not the sporting arm of the social security system.
In any case, how essential is it for cricket to be on TV? I’ve been as gripped by the compelling drama of the Ashes series as anyone but, over the course of four Test matches, I’ve probably watched only two or three full sessions of play. Such is my busy metropolitan lifestyle that I simply don’t have the time. But I’m not complaining. If anything, there are now more ways to follow cricket than ever before. The BBC website’s ball-by-ball scorecard gizmo, which sits discretely on a toolbar on the bottom of my computer screen, enables me to monitor developments while working.
Then there’s Guardian Unlimited’s over-by-over web commentary which, with its sharp wit and off-topic digressions, is a slightly more laddish variation on the Test Match Special theme. And, if I’m on the move, then I can always check my mobile phone for WAP score updates. Finally, at the end of a long hard day of clicking the refresh button on my web browser, I can catch the highlights on Channel 4.
The great thing about cricket is that you can still appreciate the dramatic twists and turns simply by monitoring the scoreboard. If the England run-rate has stalled, you can be sure that Shane Warne is weaving his mesmerising magic. If the scoreboard is ticking over fast then you can guess that Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pieterson are giving it both barrels. If a couple of wickets fall in quick succession then it automatically triggers our English Batting Collapse Alarm, which was fitted as standard during the 1990s. If you throw in the more traditional media of radio and Ceefax (go on, admit you’ve followed a cricket match on Ceefax) then who needs live TV coverage?
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