Confession time. I’m old now. I can remember Botham bouncing in, Gower with the golden hair and being puzzled by the way Bob Willis seemed to fight himself along every step of his long, strangely curving run up - a speeding supertanker with its rudder stuck. I’m dreadfully old fashioned too. Much as I love it, I believe that the football season begins in mid September and ends in mid May. The time in between belongs to cricket and, for as long as I can remember, following cricket on the telly and radio, has been an integral part of my summer.
There is a tendency now to view the BBC’s coverage, both radio and television, fondly. In retrospect it wasn’t a patch on today. Only one camera meant that 50% of the match was spent contemplating which of England’s batsman had the largest backside - Markus Berkman in Rain Men makes the case for Gooch, Botham and Lamb eloquently – no hawk-eye, stump cameras or split screens. Overseas tours were limited to 30 minutes of highlights on BBC2 broadcast around midnight (after Newsnight, before the Sky at Night). The commentary team, Peter West, Tony Lewis, Jim Laker, and Ray Illingworth were bland, curmudgeonly and, the odd twinkle from Richie (Doyen©) Benaud aside, not remotely interested in informing the uninitiated. Frankly, you were expected to know the difference between a fine leg glance, and glance through fine leg. If you didn’t - tough.
Radio was even worse. Like the Smashie and Nicey brigade on Radio 1 around the same time, the TMS team was 20, no, let’s say 30, years past its sell-by, the land of the dinosaurs. Arlott had gone by then, leaving the field for Johnson and Blofeld to prattle endlessly about cake, buses and butterflies. Worse were the experts – especially Fred ‘I have no idea what’s going on out there’ Truman - forever lamenting the demise of technique, sniping at the rise of the one day game, and dismissive of anything that did not have its origins in the sepia world of hard graft, hearty back slaps and firm handshakes.
Collectively, BBC TV and radio coverage did considerable damage to cricket in this country. Rendering it inaccessible to the uninitiated, over-intellectual, over-romanticised and aimed at an aging audience that chiefly comprised characters from an Agatha Christie novel. Not only did it seem to disapprove of the modern game, it virtually ignored cricket’s more primeval (but equally attractive) elements: the desire of a fast bowler to stick one in the batsman’s teeth, the dread of a fielder as a skier heads his way, the sledging, and the sheer joy of just slogging one out of the screws over cow corner. Tut, played across the line... Much is made of the loss of school playing fields in the 80s and 90s, but the fact is that even if they had been retained, few would have wanted to play cricket on them. Cricket was mortally uncool.
Two things happened in the 90s. First the BBC employed Johnathan Agnew. Initially just another member of Johnson’s giggling claque (‘Botham… just couldn’t get his leg over….ffnnnnarr….snnnnrk. Oh Aggers…’) his coming of age was daring to call for Atherton’s resignation over the dirt in the pocket affair in1994. The rights and wrongs were irrelevant, what was revolutionary was his rather bald statement that the England Captain, a Manchester Grammar boy and Cambridge Blue no less, was a ball tampering cheat. Indeed, he was no better than those nasty Pakistanis who did despicable things to the ball against us in 1992.
This was the point when it became acceptable to state that one of the fundamental problems with England and English cricket was the MCC, the County system, coaching standards, the facilities - in short the whole Establishment of English cricket. At that moment, BBC coverage took on a harder edge - more critical, less cosy, ultimately, less part of this same Establishment. In time, this led to the reports, shake ups, foreign coaches, central contracts and an acceptance that harking back to the 1950s all the time was never going to regain the Ashes.
It’s ironic then that one of the casualties of this harder edge was the BBC’s TV coverage. Lord knows the BBC tried to change - hiring Gower as a commentator and allowing him to muse that a reverse sweep was ‘as cheeky as the snap of a suspender belt’, ‘What?!!’ spluttered the Doyen© - but it was too little too late.
Channel 4’s coverage was everything the BBC’s was not. Initially derided as a bunch of cricket philistines, C4’s innovations – hawk-eye, slow motion analysis and the incredibly simple expedient of marking a line between the stumps to assist in the judgement of lbw - have all become standard. Better, Channel 4 actually seemed to like cricket, was prepared to explain its intricacies and didn’t regard anyone under the age of 30 as a potential ASBO. Despite the slightly awkward presence of Mark Nicholas (with his shiny shoes and nicely creased trousers he always reminded me of a Dad trying get down with the kids at the school disco - I’m convinced he and David Cameron were separated at birth) Channel 4 had something for everyone: Boycott’s ill considered (but often accurate) polemics, Simon Hughes’ equally inflammatory disco shirts, acute slow motion analysis and technical exposition and, of course, the Doyen© was there just to reassure everyone that, though some things change, Channel 4 did have standards.
By 2005 something had happened that I thought would never occur in my lifetime. Cricket was cool. It helped that the England team was actually quite good and locked in the most incredible Test Series since 1981. What was striking however was the extent to which it became common currency. Everyone was talking cricket, what a genius that Warne is (fat though) Ponting – he’s lost it, Fred, Harmy, Trescothick and all the rest. Even better, it suddenly became noticeable amongst village cricketers that our opponents were getting younger -all intensity, verbals, 4 an over and aggression. Some didn’t like it, (especially when they were bounced out for the first time in 40 years) but personally I was pleased that cricket, at last, seemed to have a future.
And then the ECB sold its soul exclusively to Sky. Faced with the loss of an integral part of my summers, I too paid the Murdoch shilling. I had held out resolutely until then – there’s plenty of good live football on terrestrial and Freeview and besides, the Premiership ain’t all that – but I comforted myself that, if I did succumb, at least my cash would contribute to the unprecedented millions that would at last be available to cricket in this country.
Sky’s cricket coverage is fantastic, everything good about Channel 4 and more. The team is wonderfully balanced. Bumble’s love of the game doesn’t hide his knowledge and experience as an international player, umpire and coach, Atherton is dry and insightful, Hussain is incendiary and insightful, Gower twinkles like the Doyen© he was born to be, Holding is coolness personified while Botham tends to his increasing girth in the hope that he will one day fill Truman’s curmudgeonly old trousers. Hot spot, hi-definition, stats, highlights, press the red button…it really is the cricket telly watchers’ nirvana.
But, where’s all the cash that so comforted me three years ago gone? Say what you like about the FA and Sky (and we do) but the cash is there for all to see at the grassroots level. My grassroots football club has received funding for both new goal posts and Under 14s kit in the last two years - over £2,000 for a relatively small operation. Our cricket club on the other hand is just as strapped as it was 20 years ago. Ask the ECB or your local County Cricket Association for cash to improve your pitch, purchase some ground equipment, sight screens, nets or changing facilities. No chance. What about expert coaching or specialist training equipment? Sorry, can’t afford it, why don’t you approach some local businesses for sponsorship?
This absence of funding for grass roots cricket is critical because now there is nothing to compensate for the absence of cricket on free to air TV. Sky dishes and subscriptions are the preserve of the adult employed and unless kids can see Fred and KP regularly how can they be inspired to emulate them? To this day, my (increasingly slow) run up is modelled on Botham’s bounce to the wicket circa 1980, but how can you want to play a flamingo pull or a switch hit unless you’ve actually seen them?
For all its faults, the BBC’s cricket coverage was accessible. Cricket needs a shop window. It may be a rather drab one like the old BBC, or it may be a shiny Sky or Channel 4 version but without it, and particularly in the absence of real grassroots funding, the Sky deal will ultimately do more damage than dear old Johnners and his cakes ever could.