Who’s watching the cricket?
This summer has for some time been looked forward to as a make-or-break moment for English cricket. With England and Wales hosting the World Cup and an Ashes series starting here in August, it should be the perfect opportunity to make cricket part of the national conversation again; to try and halt the decline in enthusiasm for, and participation in, England’s traditional summer sport.
The current England team has been the best one-day side in the world for at least the last two years, propelled to the top of the ICC rankings by a brand of exciting, powerful, high-scoring and at times belligerent cricket, instilled and enforced by the captain, Eoin Morgan. They began the World Cup as favourites and despite a very shaky start – which left them on the brink of a humiliating exit from their own tournament – they made it through the group stage and have now reached the final after a comprehensive win over Australia at Edgbaston yesterday.
Very little progress, however, has been made in getting cricket back into the popular imagination. Yesterday’s victory made the front pages of some of today’s papers, but fewer than a million of us watched it on TV – compared to the 11 million who watched the football World Cup semi-final against the USA last week – because all of England’s international cricket matches are shown exclusively on Sky. Without the money that Sky pays for the broadcasting rights, English cricket would be in serious financial trouble, given the dwindling attendance at county games. But it inevitably means that fewer people follow the game.
In 2005, England beat Australia in a test series for the first time in 18 years. It was shown on terrestrial television by Channel 4. By the end of that summer the English public seemed to be in love with the game again. Viewing figures reached almost nine million; there were open-top bus parades and visits to Downing Street by bleary eyed England players. The game had never looked in better shape. And then, almost immediately, the ECB made the decision to sell the TV rights to Sky.
Tickets to international matches and domestic Twenty20 games routinely sell out at grounds across the country, but the average age of spectators is high, and fewer children than ever are playing the game. The lack of television exposure isn’t the only reason for that, but it can’t be discounted.
Sky has now confirmed it will share its broadcast rights to Sunday’s final with Channel 4. The England v. New Zealand match will be competing for viewers not only with the Wimbledon men’s final on the BBC but with the British Grand Prix on Channel 4 (the cricket will move over to More4 at lunchtime to make way for the motor racing, itself making a rare appearance on terrestrial TV: all other Formula One races are shown – where else – on Sky). But there may yet be a surge in interest in the cricket now that everyone can watch it; and nothing creates enthusiasm quite like winning.
Still, it’s hard not to see the hasty arrangement as an admission by the ECB that they made a huge mistake with the previous rights deals – an acknowledgment that, when English cricket was at its most popular for a generation, they prioritised short-term profit over long-term health. Other efforts to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience include the launch next year of a new, even shorter form of the game. ‘The Hundred’ will consist of 100-ball games, with city-based rather than county sides, and will be broadcast, in part, on the BBC.
Asked how he felt after the match yesterday, Eoin Morgan said it was ‘one of the better days’. If the England team keep performing, and the ECB can get a coherent strategy together to allow more people to watch and enjoy the game, then English cricket may still have a few more ‘better days’ ahead.