For 60 years, from the summer of 1938, Test cricket for the couch potato in England meant the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and its understated coverage. That came to an end in 1998, and since the famous Ashes series of 2005, there have been no England matches on terrestrial television at all. Cricket coverage in England is now synonymous with Sky satellite dishes, and BT Sport has also tried to muscle in by acquiring the rights to the upcoming Ashes in Australia.
The debate over where the game should be shown has intensified in recent times, with a marked drop off in participation numbers. It’s prompted a strong salvo from Lawrence Booth in his Notes by the Editor in the newly released Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. “An English city-based 20-over tournament will probably be with us in 2020, but it would have been sooner had the counties not argued over the details,” he writes. “It is a delay our game can barely afford, not least because part of the new competition’s allure will be free-to-air coverage.
“Advocates of satellite paywalls insist the world has changed: youngsters, they say, barely watch television any more; the digital dissemination of cricket, they argue, is about creating noise in bitesized chunks on social media. Since recent research by the ECB suggested that more British children aged 7–15 recognised American wrestler John Cena than Alastair Cook, they could do with cranking up the volume.”
Before he took on his current role, Booth used to be the man behind The Spin, one of the most popular cricket columns online. One of those that replaced him in the years since has made the space his own, offering writing of similar quality to the original. This week, Andy Bull also focused on the proposed new Twenty20 competition, but with the emphasis on the mindset change that English cricket will need to pull it off.
He highlights the views of Dan Migala, the baseball fan that Cricket Australia brought in to plan the marketing strategy for the Big Bash. “I’m a father of two kids,” Migala says. “I weigh my fear of maintaining baseball’s traditions against my fear that my kids will never embrace the sport that their dad loves. And the latter is greater.” When Migala goes back to Australia now, he goes to matches, sees those same people he once showed the garish new shirts to, “I see them holding hands with their grandchildren, eating an ice cream. Granddad is in his blazer and the kid is in a green Melbourne Stars shirt, and he’s asking him about Don Bradman.”
Its critics will say that the Big Bash isn’t much different from baseball, but there’s no denying that it has worked when it comes to giving the sport a new lease of life. Unlike India or Bangladesh, Australia isn’t a one-sport nation, and the ones that stagnate get left behind. Rugby Union’s popularity, and participation numbers, have plummeted in the new millennium, to the extent that the very existence of Australia’s Super Rugby franchises could be threatened.
With Aussie Rules Football hovering up athletically gifted boys and girls, cricket faces a fight for relevance, even as it remains the summer game. Each year, the Big Bash registers ever more impressive viewership numbers, in stadia and on television. In less than a decade, it’s become as much a part of the Australian summer landscape as the Test matches in Melbourne and Sydney.
It probably wouldn’t have happened without an outsider like Migala. The curse of sports administration around the world is that it usually involves hopelessly out-of-touch old men – almost always men – making decisions on behalf of the young and restless. The stench of we-know-what’s-good-for-you is impossible to escape.
More than half of the Wisden India editorial staff are under 30, and you can sense the enthusiasm in the air when the Indian Premier League rolls around each year. Most of them watch Test matches too, but you can tell that all the talk of its primacy just bores them. As it should.
One old codger who has embraced change is Vivian Richards. “I’m very happy to see the interest in the game, even if it’s the shortened version,” he told Wisden India earlier this week. “Just to see families go to a game, and have a great night out is fantastic. I may belong to another generation, but I’m still very much in touch and quite flexible when it comes to new developments.”
And those new developments need to go far beyond cricket on terrestrial TV. As the father of a girl who will soon turn six, I tend to agree with the advocates of satellite paywalls. She barely watches TV. Whatever ‘screen time’ she is allowed is usually spent watching age-appropriate shows that are live streamed.
In most parts of the world, cricket remains a summer sport. Why would you waste days stuck indoors in front of the telly? Internet streams, affordable legal ones, allow people to take the match with them, to a beach or park or poolside. That was how I watched Kuldeep Yadav’s dramatic first bow in Test cricket.
An article in the Economic Times last December suggested that 58 per cent of Indian Internet users browsed using their mobile phones. It also said that 73 per cent had drastically reduced their TV-watching time. When I logged in to Hotstar on the final morning of the Dharamsala Test, there were more than a million concurrent users.
That really is the future, especially once we reach a stage where you can integrate the stream with social-media banter. But along with that, cricket needs to shed its innate conservatism. Test cricket and Twenty20 are two entirely different sports, with next to no crossover in terms of technique or tactics – Virat Kohli could be one of the rare exceptions – and accepting that will make coexistence a lot easier.
Some who fall for the charms of Twenty20 may eventually transition and become fans of the five-day format as well. Others won’t. It doesn’t matter. In a fast-changing world, those that cling to outdated notions will end up like the BBC – with no cricket at all.