The England cricket team is doing really rather well just now. They are not the best. Australia are the best. But England are well on the way to establishing themselves as the best of the rest. Yesterday they completed a fine victory against South Africa, in the first of the series of five test matches they are playing down there, having earlier in the year, in England, beaten New Zealand in 3 games out of 3 and the West Indies in 4 games out of 4. Before that they toured the West Indies and beat them 3 games out of 4, with the last game drawn. In other words, England have won 8 out of their last 8 test matches (more than any England side has ever won consecutively before), and it would have 12 out of 12 had it not been for that final game draw in the West Indies. Recent England recruit Andrew Strauss, who batted superbly, both in the game against South Africa that finished yesterday morning and throughout last summer, has now played in just 8 test matches and has been on the winning side every time. This is amazing.
All of which means that, what with England doing so well, now was a very good time for the England cricket authorities to be renegotiating the TV rights to cricket matches, and here is what they have done:
Live coverage of England’s home Test matches will no longer be available on terrestrial TV from 2006 onwards.
The England and Wales Cricket Board has awarded an exclusive four-year contract to BSkyB, which will run until 2009.
In other words, I and millions of other BBC License Fee payers will not be able to watch test cricket live on the telly without paying extra. I am selfishly unhappy about this. I like watching test cricket live on the telly, in among doing other things. Cricket is a slow game, and now that they have instant replays of anything very exciting, it mixes well with working on other things.
However, it is clear to me that the cricket people in question (the England and Wales Cricket Board – or ECB) are perfectly entitled to make this deal. If I want to go on watching their games, I will have to pay more. That is the deal they are offering, and it is up to me to decide what to do about that.
Others, however, take a more interventionist line.
Criticism of the ECB’s decision was swift. The backlash amongst cricket supporters has been fierce and the governing body stand accused of ignoring their responsibility to promote the sport at a time when the England team is enjoying great success.
Labour MP John Grogan, a Yorkshire CCC member, told the Guardian he wants the list of “crown jewel” sports, which include the FA Cup final and Olympics, to be reviewed. Cricket was removed from the protected list in 1998.
“I think it’s disastrous for English cricket,” said Grogan.
“There is a real danger (cricket) will disappear from half the public’s consciousness and youngsters will take up other sports.
“The government has to review what sports are included in the listed events.”
Listed events. If you think that sounds like ‘listed buildings’, you would be right. What it means is that The Government, on behalf of The People, seizes control of various Big Sporting Events, and says that the people who have spent the last century or two organising them, and building up into the Crown Jewel Events that they have become, do not own or control them any more. Oh, they have to go on organising them. But they are no longer allowed to charge what they want to charge for their events. Which means that the events are not theirs any more. Greedy cricket supporters who, like me, want to watch cricket on the telly, but who do not want to pay what the supplier of the events is asking, are now agitating for the Government to steal test cricket from its rightful owners.
As usual, when the Government is being urged to Doing Something, the question of whether the people on the receiving end of this Something are being wise, or generous, or generally doing their jobs well, is all mixed up with whether the Government would be right to barge in and rearrange matters. But, these are two absolutely distinct matters. Maybe your taste in music is poor. Maybe you are worth more money than your employers are now willing to pay you. Maybe in refusing to marry this virtuous but rather plain girl rather than that silly but prettier one you are being both cruel and stupid. But that is a long way from saying that the government should force you to listen to better music, force your employers to pay you more than they want to, and decide who you should marry.
And maybe the ECB is serving cricket badly, by denying many of the potential next generation of England cricketers the chance to watch test cricket at an impressionable age. Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe the money they will make from the deal and which they will distribute to the England county cricket clubs, is money they should have been willing to do without. Maybe.
But – and no maybes about it – it is none of the Government’s business to be deciding on behalf of the ECB what they should charge for their product, and to whom.