Do not expect a mighty mea culpa from the England and Wales Cricket Board but now we have an implicit acknowledgement that the decision, taken more than a decade ago, not to insist upon some cricket remaining on free-to-air television was contrary to the best interests of the game.
Alongside the promise of more money came assurances in 2005 that viewing habits were changing so rapidly that cricket’s removal from terrestrial television would not be damaging to the sport. As indicated by the viewing figures for rugby’s home internationals, which were available to all in the winter, those habits have not changed quite so rapidly as anticipated. Tom Harrison, the chief executive of the ECB, has said: “We have no ambition to be the richest, most irrelevant sport in this country.” Amen to that.
So the determination to bring some cricket back to FTA television constitutes a substantial U-turn which will be welcomed by many non‑subscribing fans, who recognise Ben Stokes only from his picture in the papers, who have never watched live Alastair Cook scoring a single out of his 11,057 Test runs and who may have witnessed only 22 of Jimmy Anderson’s 467 Test wickets. They could only catch Stuart Broad’s eight for 15 against Australia at Nottingham in 2015 on the radio or from the highlights later in the evening.
However, there is no escaping the fact that the ECB is attempting to squeeze toothpaste back into the tube, a task on the same scale as that endured by Sisyphus. The focus will be on Twenty20 matches of various sorts. These may be more convenient for free‑to-air broadcasters. Even in the heyday of the BBC and Channel 4 it was often tricky for the broadcasters to fit Tests into their schedules, especially those hindered by poor weather and slow over-rates. The scope for disruptions was ever-present. This risk is at least reduced with the shorter form of the game.
The crown jewels will not be available on FTA television. Two T20 internationals might allow a glimpse of Stokes – provided he is not being rested for more important fixtures ahead. The 10 T20 domestic matches are for a competition that has no recognisable teams and which may or may not capture the imagination of the cricketing public. For this step to be credible it seems imperative that those games should include the semi‑finals and final of a tournament that is still on the drawing board, if not the back of an envelope. Nine of the 22 games scheduled for the masses will feature women.
All this is better than nothing but there can be no guarantee that this will have a transformational effect on the game. New viewers will be denied a demonstration of the forward defensive. Expect the most compelling fixtures to remain on subscription TV when the decisions are taken at the end of June.
We also anticipate fewer Tests in an English summer, which is welcome. This need not be regarded as a dangerous change in priorities. In fact it will be a reversion to what happened pre-1999. The “less is more” doctrine has seldom been applied to cricket and that is a source of regret. Damp, cold Tests in May have often been damaging to the image of Test cricket rather than enhancing the traditional form of the game – as has a proliferation of late-season one-day internationals. (Is everyone brimful of anticipation for the day/night match between England and West Indies at the Ageas Bowl – the fifth in the series – on 29 September?)
In our dreams this change could prompt another mea culpa from the ECB. In an Ashes summer there would be only five Tests against Australia; in other years there would probably six Tests in two series.
It is now apparent that there are too many potential Test grounds in this country. In the 90s Durham were encouraged by the ECB to build a stadium capable of hosting international cricket when they were seeking to become a first-class county, a decision that ultimately led to a financial crisis. That temptation was irresistible at Hampshire as well, where the club were fortunate to find such a generous benefactor in Rod Bransgrove to fund their out-of-town project when the sums no longer added up.
There will now be too many clubs chasing a limited number of days of international cricket. The simple truth is that the best stadiums allow spectators to walk up to the ground if they so wish, one lesson that we have not necessarily learnt from the success of the Big Bash in Australia, which has been the trigger for so much of the ECB’s new way of thinking.