Sunday will be a very special day, possibly one that will be unrepeated in my lifetime. England will contest the World Cup Final. At Lord’s.
What’s more, the match will be shown live on Channel 4.
As ridiculous as it sounds, in many ways this is a childhood dream come true.
I cannot remember a time when I did not love cricket, did not know the rules, did not know the players. It has always been something that has just ‘been there’ for me.
My earliest memories include the England’s 1994 tour of the West Indies. As I was only two-and-a-half when these matches took place, I can only conclude that I know every result, every wicket, every beat of that series through watching Jonathan Agnew’s marvellous Captain Calypso documentary from a VHS recording a huge number of times in the years following it. (This clip on YouTube still stirs deep childhood memories, its music, commentary and interviews stirring something that exists deep within my subconscious.)
A happy haze of 1990s cricketing memories still swim around in my head: Nasser Hussain scoring runs in 1996, England beating Australia at Edgbaston in 1997, the joy of the Melbourne test in the winter Ashes of 1998/9 (where I distinctly remember the BBC were unable to show the highlights package of the victorious final day because somebody had forgotten to play it down the line from Australia), the ups and (mainly) downs of the 1999 World Cup campaign.
There was a common thread through all of this, of course: England usually lost. When they won, it was a glorious exception. The expectation was defeat, and this was usually borne out in the result.
The year is 1999: enter Nasser Hussain, enter Duncan Fletcher. Enter Channel 4.
Cue the Revolution
The emotional connection that I still feel towards the Channel 4 cricket coverage is perhaps unsurprising. Given the amount of time and attention I gave it between the ages of 8 and 14, it would be unusual if I did not feel the way I did.
All of a sudden, my beloved cricket felt more exciting, more vibrant. There were diverse voices, immersive graphics, more approachable content.
Our aim was to bring the game to life for the viewer. We were modernists but realists too, eager to respect the game’s history and translate its archive… we advertised, marketed and promoted. It was a love affair with cricket and we stopped at nothing to make the lover special and everyone else appreciate her.
from A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas, published 2017
The Saturday morning Cricket Roadshow was a genuine highlight of my week, with Mark Nicholas and Sybil Ruscoe presenting an hour-long magazine show from a different cricket ground each week throughout the summer.
The live coverage was fun and informative, with Simon Hughes’ analysis pieces, Ian Smith’s infectious laughter, Mark Nicholas’ wonderful hyperbole and the dulcet tones of Richie Benaud underpinning it all.
This was all owing to the production company Sunset and Vine. Over the course of four years they defined how cricket is televised. Their template is the one that is now emulated the world over (much like how Sky Sports’ template for football coverage, honed in the early 1990s, has become the template for every football broadcast since). A comparison between the 1998 BBC feed and the 2005 Sunset and Vine feed demonstrates this. (Then compare your 2005 Ashes DVD to Sky’s coverage of today – there is practically no difference when it comes to the production of the feed.)
The use of technology was wonderful for this impressionable 8 year old. They could finally tell if a batsman hit the ball by using a sound-graph! They could blank out the pads and show where the ball was in relation to the stumps for LBW appeals! Simon Hughes put a number on how damp the pitch was using his dampometer! In 2001, the newly-launched Hawk-Eye actually predicted where the ball was going to go! And, you could filter for the Hawk-Eye data for every ball in the 2001 Ashes series using a Java app on the Channel 4 website!
Speaking of the website, the Desktop Richie app gave you a cartoon Richie Benaud who wandered around your screen and announced the scores, ate sandwiches and put up his umbrella.
And that was not all – Channel 4 was committed to growing the game. They developed a new scheme to integrate cricket with the curriculum, distributed to all schools in the country. There were beach cricket events, where big screens would show the cricket before film screenings and concerts in the evenings. Watching reports of these events on the Cricket Roadshow led to the realisation that the sport that (it seemed) only I had an interest in was becoming exciting and relevant.
Best of all, England started to win. The 2000 victory against the West Indies was superb sporting theatre. The winter victories against Pakistan and Sri Lanka scarcely believable. The run of winning results did not last against Australian tourists in 2001, but the seeds were sown. In 2002, an established Nasser Hussain led England into series against Sri Lanka and India.
Channel 4 was at the heart of it all, putting on events across the country, commissioning an Indian Summer companion season across the channel and providing in-depth coverage throughout the summer. They even partnered with the Lord’s Taveners to open a new cricket ground in a deprived area of London, with Alex Tudor delivering the first ball during a live Cricket Roadshow broadcast. As Channel 4 signed off from the Oval at the conclusion of the summer, there was nothing to make me think that this was the end of something special, but the 2003 summer was to bring with it a nasty surprise.
Of course it couldn’t last. Viewed through these adult eyes it seems obvious now. The ratings for live cricket were only around the 1m mark on a good day (and, on most days, they were far below this). Far more money was being pumped into the production and promotion than advertising revenue brought back in. Worse still, a new, inflated, contract had been signed by Channel 4 in 2001 which committed them to increased rights costs in the summers of 2003, 4 and 5, just as new executives were questioning the financial and scheduling impacts of the summer sport.
As somebody who did not understand this economic background, it was a shock to tune into the first episode of the re-launched Cricket Show in May 2003. Now pre-recorded, and working from a far reduced budget, it was a shadow of its predecessor. Its timings were also a moveable feast, no longer anchored to the Saturday 10am slot.
I had naïvely expected an African Summer season, to echo the previous summer and to reflect the 2003 tourists (Zimbabwe and South Africa), but there was no such thing. The start-times for test matches were shifted earlier and, the cardinal sin, play at the end of the day was cut-off so that Channel 4 could show Hollyoaks. James Anderson’s first test wicket was, in fact, untelevised in this country as Channel 4 had already gone off air for the day.
This was all very dispiriting, although there were still signs of Channel 4 commitment: the Today at the Test highlights programme was yet to be shifted into a late-night slot and Channel 4 led Nasser Hussain’s resignation press conference at the end of the 2003 Edgbaston Test. It was a funny, transitional summer for English cricket (Michael Vaughan captained Martin Bicknell. Let that sink in for a minute.) and this was somehow reflected in the Channel 4 coverage.
When 2004 rolled around, it all seemed a bit more settled, albeit stripped back. The start time was now 10.30am and new ICC regulations meant that play would never go beyond 6pm, a great benefit for Channel 4 and meant that they did not depart from the action early. Today at the Test was relegated to a grave-yard slot, and whilst the Cricket Show saw a new lease of life under the dryly-humorous Adam Darke, it was still punted around the schedules.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall for the future television contract with the ECB. It was clear to all that Channel 4 was no longer going to give cricket the priority that it had at the time of the previous rights renewal. And whilst the production team still demonstrated the vision that Mark Nicholas outlined, any viewer could tell that the channel had ceased to feel the same way for at least two years.
As the ECB put the broadcast rights for the 2006-9 summers to tender in October 2004, there was much speculation in the press as to their destination. Whilst The Times was briefing that the BBC was in with a chance of taking back live Test Match coverage, it was broadly accepted that the ECB would be highly tempted by a knockout Sky deal.
Channel 4 had lost the lot. Sky were to show every single ball of cricket delivered in England between 2006 and 2009 exclusively live, with Channel 5 showing highlights.
This 13 year old had to contemplate a blackout from his favourite sport, living in a non-Sky household (and despite much persuasion, that was how it remained). I wonder how many others were in my position. I wonder how many were lost to the game as a result.
But, coupled with the sadness of losing access to live cricket, I was absolutely devastated that Channel 4, the channel and production that had shed a light onto my favourite pastime, energising the sport beyond belief, was to be bowing out.
But, as we know, Channel 4 had one season left on their contract…
A final, golden, summer
Much has been written about 2005. It was the perfect summer of cricket, the perfect series. I can tell you precisely where I was for each test, each moment, each result. It was something that I had thought unobtainable – England simply did not beat Australia. Yet, under Michael Vaughan’s leadership, we had a team who beat Australia at their own game. The result was gloriously tense, beautiful, dramatic cricket.
At the heart of it all was Channel 4. They began the summer under their bad old tendencies, scheduling a month of Cricket Shows at 8am on Sunday mornings, coming off the air after the Lord’s test before the presentation ceremony took place and showing highlights at midnight.
But it did not take long for the public to fall in love with Michael Vaughan’s England and with test match cricket. Channel 4 was commanding audiences of over 8 million people at the climaxes of the matches and, quickly, the highlights packages were returned to early evening slots. Post-match coverage was extended. A two-hour documentary reviewing the series was commissioned for the weekend following the conclusion of the series.
And people realised. They realised what we would all be losing. What the ECB had signed away. But by then it was too late. The Channel 4 cricket journey was over.
I’m standing here with Tony Greig, Michael Atherton, Simon Hughes and Michael Slater. Seven unforgettable years on the air, crystallised by the greatest series of them all. 80 people work on this production and if you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have, then we finish happy. Best of all, England have won the Ashes!
Mark Nicholas, 12th September 2005 , 6.57pm
12th September 2005. A bittersweet day. England won the Ashes. Channel 4 went off air. I still remember it vividly.
By this time, I was obsessively recording as much of the Channel 4 coverage as I could to form some sort of archive of what will always be my favourite sports production. Much of that collection has made its way to YouTube and it still stirs memories and generates comments.
I had planned to edit a tribute video for Channel 4 cricket for many years, and finally got around to it in 2015, to mark a decade since the production came off the air. Using my own archive footage and cut to Mambo No 5 (to the beat, no less!) it was a labour of love of which I am still very proud.
If you had told me then that, four years later, England would be taking part in a World Cup final and it would be shown live on Channel 4, I’m not sure which claim I would have disbelieved more.
The FTA debate
When England play New Zealand on Sunday, it will be the first time that the national team have played live on free-to-air television in fourteen years. Let that sink in.
In my job, I work with children mostly aged between eight and thirteen. Even the oldest children that I have worked with this academic year were not alive the last time that the England cricket team played live on FTA.
I have some sympathy for the ECB executives responsible for selling the broadcast rights in October 2004. Channel 4 had demonstrated lessening commitment over the past two seasons and were offering a lower amount of money than their previous contract (albeit for less content – they would have paid the same amount per test match). Similarly, Sky Sports, junior partner in the previous deal, were also offering less money for the joint partnership, but for more nefarious reasons as they were doing their best to tempt the ECB into exclusivity.
It was, however, a remarkable move, and as the ECB have made various decisions over the past fifteen years, one feels less and less sympathy for them with every fresh blow that they deliver.
I cannot think of another sport that has not had its national team perform once free to all in over a decade. It has become accepted wisdom by otherwise rational cricket writers that FTA channels would not schedule cricket, would not pay the production costs, would treat it dreadfully and thank goodness that we have Sky because without them the game would not be shown at all, let alone financed.
Whilst the Sky money has been a huge boon for the game, one does wonder how much of it has gone towards inflated country contracts, increased money for top executives, and coffers in the ECB’s mysterious ‘rainy day fund’. For years the ECB failed to attempt a more radical approach to the rights, keeping most of the coverage with Sky, but finding a ‘showcase’ for FTA television, whether that be selected test match simulcasts, limited overs or domestic cricket. Treating an FTA channel as a true partner may well have led to joint scheduling decisions that would have been for the betterment of the game in this country. Whilst this would, of course, have led to less financial input from Sky, a measured approach with two television partners could have increased national exposure for cricket without the financial support from pay-TV being completely cut off.
Even if this was deemed completely impossible, then why has Sky not been mandated to run the sort of events that Channel 4 did in the early-00s, with beach parties and other outreach events dedicated to the game?
The image that the ECB portrays is that they are very happy for a white, rich, middle-class audience and they do not mind if others do not engage with their sport. (An image embodied by the England team’s Waitrose sponsorship for some years.)
To be fair to the ECB, there have been signs of things marginally improving. The BBC having online clip rights since 2016 has been a positive move, and the England team does return to FTA television on a regular basis from next season with two T20 internationals to be broadcast live on the BBC. But these are slim pickings, and the somewhat underhand briefings that the BBC’s scheduling restrictions are responsible for the Hundred format being developed (which I do not believe for a second) undermine the initial wave of optimism when the deal was announced.
And we come back to that single fact. For the first time in fourteen years the national team will be playing live on free to air television on Sunday.
My own circumstances are that, with the advent of Now TV passes, I have actually watched a lot of live cricket on Sky Sports in the last four years. The sport is no longer blacked out to me. I pay to watch the sport that I love, and I enjoy Sky’s coverage.
But that misses the broader point. Channel 4 was able to bring non-cricket lovers together to make cricket into something special: a national talking point, a water cooler moment. That simply will not happen again now that only the scraps are being shown free of charge in an approachable manner to the nation.
One day in paradise
But for one day, I am going to forget my disgruntlement with the ECB and their rights deals. I am going to forget that this is likely to be a one-off.
England are in the World Cup final, and they will be shown live on Channel 4, forever my spiritual home of cricket. The wonderful Sunset and Vine will be producing the main match feed (as the host broadcaster for the ICC).
The sun will be shining on Lord’s and, no matter the result, it will be one of my greatest days as a cricket fan. It was over half my lifetime ago that Channel 4 was showing live England cricket, something that was seminal in my childhood.
Now it is back, and it will be something special – one day in which I can relive the greatest sporting coverage that I will ever see in my lifetime.
I cannot wait.