Cricket and Politics – Mix Gently

A contribution from “Wooley”

In the ignoble pantheon of cricketing clichés, surely only ‘catches wins matches’ is lower than ‘sport and politics should not mix’. Of course, they always will and – from the very moment that teams went on to the field bearing the names of England and Australia – they always have.

Cricket needs politics – no sport has suffered any more than cricket from Thatcher’s sale of school playing fields. But politics has rarely seemed in the least bit interested in return. Tony Blair’s much ridiculed ignorance of football history is now generally accepted as a misquotation, but he has no excuse when it comes to cricket – in his speech at the opening ceremony for the 1999 World Cup, he remembered a six being hit off the first ball of the 1975 World Cup final, which must have confused anyone else who remembered no such thing (“still”, as Simon Hughes – commentating for the BBC at the time – pointed out, “it was Tony Blair. You expect him to get his facts wrong.”)

Blair could, of course, be counted on for a ringing denouncement of any foreign dictator going. Yet, in the same month that he was quite content to risk British lives to bring down one such dictatorship in Iraq, he made no attempt to intervene on the matter of whether English sportsmen should go to Zimbabwe, happy to leave the England team (literally) locked in a room deciding between the need to play all of their group games in order to qualify for the next round and the morality of effectively endorsing the corrupt Mugabe regime (their consciences won, while Australia went to Zimbabwe and won the World Cup).

2005 made cricket rather hotter political property – having washed his hands of the team just two years earlier, Blair invited them round to celebrate their Ashes win in his back garden. When then-Culture Secretary Andy Burnham commissioned his independent review of sports broadcasting, he would have seen restoring the Ashes to its ‘crown jewel’ terrestrial television status as the focus for discussion. Containing just one cricketing representative (Angus Fraser, who happens to be a hero of mine) alongside lots of people with no discernable love for the game, this panel has now delivered its verdict – leaving Burnham’s successor Ben Bradshaw to decide whether to endorse a ruling forcing the Ashes to return to terrestrial television.

Make no mistake, the suggestion that the Ashes should be a crown jewel is a populist measure, and (after two home victories in a row) it will be popular. Yet, the selection of these cultural treasures seems entirely arbitrary – this time round; the Ashes are back, the Challenge Cup and the Winter Olympics are dropped, while the Ryder Cup is again ignored.

Cricket fans are entitled to ask why the Government allowed the Ashes to be dropped in the first place, though we should not labour under any assumption that a return to terrestrial television will be a blessing for viewers. Channel 4’s coverage of the 2005 Ashes was a delight, but the credit for that goes entirely to independent production company Sunset and Vine. The overall record of the terrestrial broadcaster was less than impressive.

I’ll let Simon Hughes (who joined test match cricket’s move from the BBC to Channel 4 in 1999) fill you in:

“We palpably failed to turn around Channel 4’s dwindling enthusiasm for Test cricket… with match starting times being brought forward so that they wouldn’t eat into precious evening schedules… (highlights) transmitted so late at night we asked if it was OK to swear during commentary… The commitment to the C&G Trophy had lapsed… (which) definitely contributed to the decline in the competition’s allure.”

Thus can the ECB’s fondness for Sky Sports be easily understood. The keenest cricket fans are equally enamoured as they compare Channel 4’s sad tally of two days of county cricket each season with Sky’s capacity to show us cricket of some variety on almost every day of the week. On top of that, it is simply a fact that Sky’s investment in the sport allowed the England women’s team to arrest a decide of stark decline, becoming world champions in all formats by 2009.

This is not to say that cricket doesn’t have some tricky issues to balance. Exclusivity to Sky resulted in dramatically lower viewing figures in 2009 – evidence that the boom of 2005 was not permanent. Since most cricket coverage is going to remain on Sky, whatever the decision on the Ashes and the ‘crown jewels’, cricket’s future will be determined in no small part by the Government’s broader response to the issues of digital inclusion.

Of greatest danger is that the 2005 Ashes mean that such decisions will be taken on the evidence of the exception, rather than the rule. By any standards, 2005’s games were especially exciting. Watching them on television will be one of my defining cricketing memories as long as there is a game to remember. The fact that the wider nation was actually interested, for once, made it seem slightly more special.

But, as Marcus Berkmann pointed out in his recent book, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, the naked jingoism of the Trafalgar Square piss-up rather spoiled things – “You sort of resented all the Johnny Come Latelies who were out on the street celebrating and who didn’t spend the entire 1990s praying that Steve Waugh would get out, in vain”.

At which point, I come to the other issue that the independent panel has failed to consider – the broader context. The Ashes in 2005 secured astonishingly high audiences, but they did so for a classic series that England narrowly won, in a summer when England’s football team was at an especially low ebb (we might regret the recent defeat to Brazil, but in 2005, we lost to Northern Ireland).

Cricket is unlikely to be so lucky again. The 2009 Ashes were not only much less exciting and played against a much weaker opposition, they also had to compete for an audience with an unbeaten England football qualifying campaign, the second 5-set Wimbledon final in two years, Tom Watson’s age defying tilt at the Open and the second British Formula One world champion in a row. From now on, the Ashes will also be competing against a crowd-pleasing variety of the same sport – Twenty20.

As it happens, even I wasn’t watching as England won the final Ashes test – my friends and I were coming to the end of our own game, alas losing by a whisker on the final ball. Sports clubs (despite the obvious need of society to engage in physical exercise) “remain burdened by their reputations as bastions of male monoculture”, as Gideon Haigh has observed. And yet, my cricket team is considerably more socially diverse and far less inward looking than either my workplace or my chosen political party. Our game will die if we don’t have pitches to play on and nets to practice in, but to suggest that a sport that spread round the globe long before television existed will die unless its more casual followers are allowed to watch it free of charge is tremendously insulting.

If well handled, this debate might do cricket some good – it will certainly force ECB chairman Giles Clark to stop sticking his head in the sand. But, how the sport is watched must be a decision for cricket, and its followers. If Ben Bradshaw believes that he can simply hand over a decision so crucial for those who have cricket for their whole lives (and, yet, fairly inconsiderable for those that do need) to a panel that – as I mentioned earlier – contained just one person with any abiding interest in the game, then he will have demonstrated a fatal flaw in Government policy making.

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