How cricket could field a TV comeback

The sport's popularity has shrunk after its innings with Sky, but the Beeb could catch a new audience, says Simon Barnes

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There was a time not so long ago when cricket was part of national life, like the Houses of Parliament, Blackpool Tower, the Queen, Sir David Attenborough and Dame Judi Dench.

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It was a necessary landmark in the passing year: everyone knew it was going on. Summer would probably have been illegal unless it was sanctioned by cricket. The summer of 2015 was a great one for the England cricket team.

They beat Australia in the Ashes, which is never a small matter. In one match Australia were bowled out for a gloriously woeful 60, with Stuart Broad, impossibly, taking eight wickets for 15 runs. 

This was sensational cricket, sensational sport, the best, absolutely the best. In the same year Joe Root became the world’s topranked batsman. And yet neither Broad nor Root made even the shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Last year, research by the England and Wales Cricket Board showed that schoolchildren were more likely to recognise American wrestlers than England cricketers. It’s as if cricket has been knocked clean out of the national consciousness. 

What sound does a tree make when it falls in a deserted forest? How much does a sport matter if no one watches it? It’s not the core audience that cricket has lost: buffs and enthusiasts attend live matches, read everything, watch everything on satellite television, or catch up on the highlights packages.

What’s been lost is the casual involvement of the sympathetic but uncommitted millions – and their children.

In the meantime, the number of people who regularly play the game has fallen by half over the last 20 years. The game has lost its grip on the country’s imagination. And that’s a terrible thing for the sport.

In the last 12 years, three cyclists have been Sports Personality of the Year, but not a single cricketer. For 61 years, the BBC did live Test match cricket as a matter of course. Cricket on TV was unavoidable.

We took the soundtrack to heart: “Don’t bother looking for that, let alone chasing it,” Richie Benaud said as Ian Botham (SPOTY 1981) thrilled the nation in the 1981 Ashes series. “That’s gone straight into the confectionery stand and out again.” 

Channel 4 took over in 1999 with bold, refreshing coverage that reached its highpoint in the summer of 2005, when England won an Ashes series for the first time in 18 years and Andrew Flintoff was the last cricketer to be Sports Personality of the Year.

Cricket was on a high, a national obsession, and national joy. Then, overnight, it vanished. It went to satellite television. Made a lot of money. Lost a nation.

Now cricket is back on the BBC. For the last three weeks the Champions Trophy has been broadcast live on Sky – excellent coverage – while the BBC has run a late-night highlights package. It’s almost as if the BBC is recolonising cricket by stealth. Perhaps it’s part of a bigger game.

In the summer of 2020 there’ll be a brand new inter-city cricket tournament. It’ll be T20, of course, the short form of the game that is reckoned to be the future. (It’s like Test cricket, just as draughts is like chess.)

Cricket is quietly desperate to get back on terrestrial television as a live sport available to us all. And while nobody in the BBC is admitting it, they’re happy to be wooed. The BBC could make a quiet success of this tournament, as they have of the FA Cup.

So if you watch the final of the Champions Trophy, whether you choose to catch every ball on Sky or stay up for the highlights on BBC, you may be taking part in cricket’s bid to reclaim the hearts and minds of the nation. Is cricket about to rescue itself?  

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Champions Trophy Final: Pakistan v India is on Sunday 10am Sky Sports 2, 10.15am Radio 5 Live Highlights on BBC2 at 11.15pm