Thursday, September 4, 2008

Show Me The Money: why Sky spells doom for English cricket - mountainstriker

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.


offsideintahiti said...

Of course, cricket is cool. And so is your writing, mountainstriker, welcome to pseuds'.

Since you sound like you're quite new to the game, don't hesitate to ask questions. Guitou and I are the resident cricket experts. At your service.

Zephirine said...

Great piece, mountainstriker, really well-written and I agree with every word!

Ebren said...

There was something stately about Test cricket on BBC on Saturday.

Wake up, grab breakfast, cricket, lunch, cricket, tea (ring round friends - on a landline of course - to sort out the evening), cricket, food, then out for the night.

Sunday spent recovering from a hangover to the cricket.

Channel 4 (and adverts) was a bit too intrusive to be as good a hangover cure.

But agree utterly, that without it being on terrestrial at all, there is a problem.

Can one of the BBC channels (say, three or four - which don't normally even start until 7pm anyway) just buy the odd series?

That way no one will moan about their normal viewing schedule, most people can watch, and I will have my weekends planned for me again.

Lovely piece mountainstriker.

Zephirine said...

It makes me angry to think how many people won't be able to watch the Ashes next year, not only the next generation of potential fans but also all the elderly who grew up watching cricket but now can't afford it. £400 a year + £150 installation fee is a lot of money to some people.

Yeah, I know, there are highlights packages but it's not the same, and they don't convey all that much except how some batsmen got out.

As far as I know, Ebren, it's an exclusive deal covering all forms of the game. But new tournaments are cropping up all the time. I still think Stanford should go behind the ECB's back and get his million pound (?dollar?) match onto terrestrial TV.

The BBC must have the airtime, they complain about cricket being hard to schedule but they cleared the decks for Andy Murray at Wimbledon...

Allout said...

Nice piece and I totally agree to the historical comment.

As to the Sky deal there are clearly disadvantages of it but, for the sake of balance, it is worth pointing out that BBC did not even bid in the end for the rights and C4 were pretty indifferent about keeping them. Now, I appreciate that a lot of this is ECB spin to help justify their decision, but I also think that there is more than a grain of truth that cricket is a difficult sport to broadcast – it takes up whole days of scheduling, it rains, it goes on one hour later one day, matches finish a day and a half early etc.

Zephirine said...

Allout, yes, that's quite true, though of course Wimbledon can have the same problems and the BBC loves it! But it is only once a year.

I think there are some people at the BBC who believe that they do enough for cricket with the very full radio coverage. There's also a view that, as sport is about the only aspect of subscription TV that makes any money, people are prepared to pay for it and the BBC should pull out of sport and leave it to the market.

But as I said on the Buckland book thread, neither the BBC nor Channel 4 could outbid Sky now, the ECB would have to make a radical change and actually go for a lower-price but higher-audience bid with all that that implies financially.

Where, I think, the ECB have really let fans down is in not 'listing' important cricket fixtures. The big football finals will always be on free-to-air because the football authorities make them available on the list of national events. The ECB should at least have done that with the Ashes.

Zephirine said...

Technically, the government decides what events are listed, but the ECB persuaded them it couldn't afford to have any cricket events on the list.

Here's the list.

and here's a government response to a damning select committee report in 2006 - interesting reading for those who like that sort of thing. Note that the ECB were instructed to make sure there were a variety of bids for TV rights when the next contract negotiations came up, ie 2008. They didn't.

Zephirine said...

Sorry, same link twice. Here's the second one. The committee's conclusions are the bits in heavy type.


Yes indeed we are experts but, Crickets expert-
for ex: I am happy to inform you that well fed crickets
seek sex incessantly and die young.Also you may be
happy to learn that most crickets have a pair of non-clasping cerci at theit hind ends.

Zephirine said...

l'expert: one of those things is sometimes true of cricket players.

bluedaddy said...

I really enjoyed this mountainstriker. Nicely balanced between the personal and the bigger picture, past and present, the sport itself and its place in the wider culture. Good stuff.

Also made me fancy a game of cricket. Who's up for it? Cogsy being wickey.


BTW if anyone wants to join the GU Football Fantasy/Pseuds Mini League, I've sent out a few invites via GU (didnt have everone though as lost a lot of addresses when changing macs).

But I think all you need to do, if you already have a team, is to log in, click on Friends Leagues, and where it says join a Friends League, enter The TapiRoom as the league name box, enter 'Off topic' as the password, and click 'join league'.

(Excuse the repeat from allout's thread)

mimi said...

Great piece, mountain. Agree with almost every word. Can't quite go with your judgement on MJ Nicholas - I'm his biggest fan and loved his little "time out of the cricks" last year when he did Britain's Best Dish.

On other points, I thorougly enjoy TMS these days (except when they allow Mark Pougatch in the box - a crime against nature), and think mostly the radio coverage has evolved nicely with the game.

The point you make about what has happened to grass-roots cash - which is what the ECB promised when they sold out to Murdoch - is so true.

The local team I support get nothing, and my friend in Wiltshire who has a little boy into junior league cricket - well from what I can see, it's the parents who cough up, all the time.

Look forward to reading your next article.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

mountainstriker - Excellent stuff, with much of which I agree. The historical analysis is spot on - ESPN 442 shows old cricket footage and confirms that the BBC were complacent and rubbish.

I have a couple of quibbles re Sky.

1. For premium content (which international sport has become) I suggest it's probably right that I (and others like me) should pay for it. If it's free-to-air, my mother is paying for it through either the licence fee or advertising, two extremely regressive forms of taxation. (Ebren / Margin - I'm right about that aren't I?)

2. While it is a shame that the money hasn't filtered down to grassroots, the improvement in the grounds is remarkable. I first went to Old Trafford in 1976, and Lord's and The Oval in 1982. All are unrecognisable today. I pay £150 for my Surrey membership covering all home games (inc T20) with access to the pavilion and reduced bar prices. It is superb value for money. My kids pay £15 each for the same thing - the best deal for kids in London full stop.

Zeph - I've read much of that Select Committee stuff which damns the BBC and its defenders. BBC TV hate cricket, indeed all sport that isn't actually about sport (Wimbledon is a garden party, Ascot and Aintree a fashion show, Olympics and World Cups events etc).

So mountainstriker - how about some more?

bluedaddy said...

Mouth, isn't it about time you paid your own licence fee? Either that or let your mum watch whatever she wants, the poor dear.

zeph said...

Mouth, I agree with you to some extent about Sky, and of course many non-sportslovers resent any TV time being given up to sport. But when you look at that list A, you see sporting occasions which are also national occasions, which many people want to see even though they don't want/can't afford to subscribe to a sports service. Cricket has voluntarily declared itself to be not of national importance.

I think a fair solution would have been to list Test matches and make them available on terrestrial TV, and let Sky have all the ODIs.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Zeph - If I could be assured that the BBC would treat Tests with repect, I concur. Remember the way they treated Gooch's 300?

zeph said...

It wouldn't have to be the BBC, MotM, could go to Channel 4 or Five - for a listed event it can be any broadcaster that reaches more than 95% of the population.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Can't see C4 doing Big Brother and Test cricket - what time would be left? Even they used to cut to the horses.

Five might be the only possibility.

Zephirine said...

I'm sure there's a joke in there about cricket, Big Brother, and things that go on for a long time without anything happening...can't quite think of it though:)

mimi said...

Zeph - in Big Brother they don't allow one of the "team" time-out to go fishing.

In cricket Symonds does.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Zeph - In cricket, "Rain stopped play": in Big Brother "Brain stopped play"?

zeph said...


mimi said...

Surely in Big Brother it's simply: Brain stopped??

Tweet it, digg it