Next winter, as England fans gather round their radios eager for ball-by-ball coverage of the team’s exploits in the West Indies and Sri Lanka to brighten up their dark and gloomy evenings, a number of familiar and comforting voices will be missing.
There will be no Jonathan Agnew, Simon Mann or Michael Vaughan summarising and commentating on play for the much-loved Test Match Special (or TMS as its fans call it).
That’s because the free-to-air rights to cover England’s tours of Sri Lanka (which starts in October) and the West Indies (starting in January) including all the Test matches, ODIs and Twenty20 internationals from each tour, will be broadcast across TalkSPORT and TalkSPORT 2.
This came about because of separate deals struck between the respective West Indies and Sri Lankan cricket boards for the broadcasting rights. It seems that talkSPORT, which is owned ultimately by Rupert Murdoch, had more cash than the BBC was prepared to pay.
And while the station has not finalised its line-up, talkSPORT sources indicate that Darren Gough, the former England fast bowler and a TalkSPORT Drive presenter, is set to be one of the voices for its ball-by-ball coverage.
And for my money Gough (like many of the other laddish presenters who tend to operate on talkSPORT’s airwaves) will not be a patch on anyone in the TMS line-up.
We will discover in the coming weeks who will be in the talkSPORT commentary box and whether talkSPORT can lure any of the freelance TMS voices over to work for them. In 2005 TMS stalwart David “Bumble” Lloyd was recruited as a summariser – but he works for Sky Sports as well and is something of a gun for hire. But even if some of the TMS team do work on talkSPORT it won’t be the same programme.
We can also be sure that Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent and a paid-up BBC employee, will definitely not be defecting. Today he said he was “very sorry” to the many disappointed listeners who flooded his Twitter feed at the news.
So no Agnew – and I’d be surprised if other voices will head to talkSPORT.
The news also means that the much-loved TMS will not cover an England overseas tour for the first time since the rights were taken by talkSPORT in 2005 for England’s tour of South Africa.
For listeners it means almost certainly regular adverts and none of the TMS traditions which have made it such a beloved British institution in its 60-year history.
Over that time TMS has developed a style all of its own – expert commentary but with a relaxed tone, it’s a cricket institution that no-one can match.
To give just one well known example of the way TMS operates, listeners frequently send in cakes to the team. But what may sound like a slightly antiquated tradition is actually one of the things that has made the show so charming over the years and such a comforting companion.
We lost Blowers last summer – Henry Blofeld retired after a distinguished career and with a moving standing ovation at his last test at Lords – and now this. After all the woes on the field this winter – England’s disastrous tours of Australia and New Zealand and the Australia ball-tampering scandal – the absence of TMS could be the cruellest cut of all.
Even worse this looks like it will be a sign of things to come. That is because talkSPORT, owned by Wireless Group which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, seems very keen to challenge the BBC’s radio coverage of sport and looks likely to land the rights to the cricket team’s South Africa tour in the winter of 2019/20.
The one sliver of good news is that TMS will continue to have the rights to England’s home test matches (which it negotiates with the England and Wales Cricket Board) until the end of 2024.
It would be great if the BBC fought hard – and dug deep in its pockets – to keep the rights to every ball the England team faces.