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03rd Feb 2021

Why making cricket free to air will be crucial to the sport’s survival

Channel 4 securing the rights to broadcast England's test series against India is a hugely significant step for a sport constantly looking to recruit fans

Reuben Pinder

Why didn’t they think of this years ago?

The most common response when I tell someone I’m into cricket is usually one of humorous disdain. You like that sport for posh people that takes five days to play and even then there isn’t a guaranteed winner? Yes, I do, because it’s beautiful.

But it’s hard to blame anyone for being turned off by cricket’s quirks when almost everything about its marketing strategy is geared towards preaching to the choir.

With its broadcast rights held by Sky Sports and sometimes BT Sport, both of whom provide an exceptional viewing experience, cricket has strayed further and further from the masses over the past decade and a half.

The summer of 2019 went some way to re-engaging the wider public, with the greatest white ball game and the most stunning Test innings of all time both hitting our screens at a time with no men’s football tournament, but its impact appears to have been temporary.

But the news of Channel 4 securing the broadcast rights for England’s upcoming test series in India is a welcome change for the sport, and could finally convert some of the sceptics at a time when our only options for entertainment are walks in the park or watching a screen.

The notion that cricket is an elitist sport is largely true – 63 per cent of international cricketers from the big three nations are privately educated. That number dips to 37.5 per cent in the England team, but it is still disproportionately higher than the six per cent of people nationwide who attended a private school.

Picking up cricket as a hobby is expensive; it you have to find a club, buy the gear, sacrifice a Saturday, and most significantly have a parent who will get you into it. When access to a sport is protected by subscription payments and educational obstacles, recruiting new fans becomes a whole lot harder.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. On the subcontinent, cricket is a sport of the masses. It is played in the street with taped up tennis balls and wickets marked with chalk. Stadiums are packed out by fans for T20 matches, the support reminiscent of a south American football derby. It’ll take years of work from within the game for interest levels to reach those heights in Britain, but step one is making sure everyone can watch it.

For the first time since the summer of 2005, the summer of romance that seduced many casual fans into becoming obsessed with the game, an England test series will be free to air. And it is baffling that it took this long for the ECB to admit that it was a necessary move. Rather than inventing new formats, new teams, and new rules, making an already confusing game even more so, just make it available for everyone to watch. It’s really not rocket science.

It also helps that the England team is currently full of exciting talent. Bowling veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad still lead the attack, supported by the coolest cricketer on the planet, Jofra Archer.

With the bat, the talismanic Ben Stokes remains in the middle order, providing the ideal platform for bright talents such as Ollie Pope to thrive. And Joe Root, whose captaincy has come under criticism in recent years, continues to lead by example, putting up some of the best numbers of his career against Sri Lanka.

It is a great shame the Barmy Army will not be in India to create the sort of atmosphere many football clubs would envy, but having a few million viewers watching at home should be hugely beneficial in the long run.

If this series comes anywhere close to the excitement of the Headingley test in 2019 or the 2005 Ashes, moving it to free to air TV could well prove to be the catalyst to inspiring a new generation of fans.