Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky, we’re all major cricket junkies

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2005

The cost to business has not been totted up – I imagine it will run into hundreds of millions of pounds in lost productivity. First, there is the cost of work simply not touched. I tried to get my head down today, and it started well (chiefly because I had meetings which kept me away from the temptation of “just quickly checking the score”).

Secondly, because of the cost in bandwidth: the interweb must have taken one hell of a battering from obsessives like me clicking ‘Refresh’ every five seconds as we followed the BBC’s online over-by-over scoreboard. (I had had to give up on the Grauniad’s fantastically entertaining OBO website as rush-hour site traffic had slowed it to a tottering crawl.) In the end, I admitted defeat at 3 pm – when my live streaming radio commentary crashed for the umpteenth time – and searched for the nearest telly. My boss was already there, feigning to get through some paperwork. I’m now typing this watching the highlights – Channel 4’s, not Kevin Pietersen’s.

Ten weeks ago, it was all so very, very different. Heavy defeat in the first test match at Lord’s prompted premature obits: “What had been billed as a tight contest between well-matched sides – the top two teams in the world fighting it out for supremacy – was not even close,” The Guardian observed fairly on 25th July. What we could not have then known, would not dared have dreamed, was that England could out-play the Aussies in the next four matches, winning two (Edgbaston and Trent Bridge), just missing out on one (Old Trafford), and holding their nerve today at the Oval to clinch that dinky little wooden urn.

Amid the encomia which have rightly greeted this fantastic cricketing series, two thoughts have struck me. First, how remarkable it is that a game predicated on elaborate tactical strategies which put Risk to shame has proven so tantalising exciting. The pendulum has swung so gloriously wildly this whole summer – England and Australia tossing the advantage between each other as if the pin’s been taken out – it has been impossible to rest easy if you’re at all partisan. Our agonies and ecstasies have been elongated to snapping point over four or five days of unbearably oscillating tension. This is not the modern way. A football match – even if it goes to extra time and penalties – is settled within three hours. Ditto rugby. Yet a nation has been transfixed by a game whose ebbs and tides, its modulating rhythms, are integral to its out-moded charm.

It is ironic that while this paragon of sporting endurance was playing to packed houses, Prince Charles was eulogising “a gentler, calmer approach to life in a world which has become frenetic”. For while test cricket is anomalous in this world of fast races and quick wins, it has adapted to modern living with huge success. Drawn-out drawn test matches which last five days (other than to make up for bad weather) are rarities, swift four-day results the norm. One-day internationals and Twenty20 games are rapidly growing the game’s popularity. The Ashes is the crowning triumph for a domestic game whose outlook has rarely seemed healthier.

Which leads me to my second point. There has been much criticism that Sky has acquired the rights to England’s international cricket games. As a non-Sky subscriber, a part of me shares those laments. But the plain fact is Channel 4 had to make a commercial decision, and cricket does not pay its way. Of course, if the programme controllers could guarantee all future test series would fizz and snap to the delight of eight million viewers the decision would be a cinch. Advertisers would be queuing round the block for a 30 second spot. But as Steve Hewlett dryly notes in today’s Guardian: “spool forward to a wet July Thursday in the middle of a series against Pakistan”…

Sky’s exclusive deal guarantees £220 million which can be pumped into promoting cricket in schools, and funding improvements to the county’s clubs and grounds. Yes, there’s a short-term hit to the game from the lower visibility non-terrestrial coverage will gain – though it hasn’t noticably hampered Premiership football – but the England and Wales Cricket Board were right to hammer out the best deal available at the time. I am content to swap a cash-starved England team facing a drubbing in front of the whole nation for a thriving England team half the nation can cheer on pay-TV.