Heard but not seen: why this series is the Invisible Ashes

David Brook, Guerilla Cricket’s latest recruit and the man who took Test cricket to Channel 4, argues that BT Sport’s acquisition of the away Ashes TV rights are having knock-on effects for the promotion of the game.

With the second Test poised tantalisingly on the final day in Adelaide – England needing 178 with six wickets in hand – and expelled from a speeding awareness course for sneaking a peak at the Ashes score on my poorly concealed mobile phone – I popped into a nearby Corals to find out the odds on England and perhaps place a cheeky bet. I pulled up the cricket screen and scrolled down the options.

Something missing: the betting screen failed to turn up cricket’s oldest rivalry

The New Zealand Test series against West Indies was continuing, the Bangladesh Premier League was in full swing, the South African Ram Slam T20 was under way, and the Women’s Big Bash was on the horizon. God forbid, they were even taking punts on the World Cup. The 2019 World Cup – 18 months away.

But there was no Ashes. The oldest rivalry in cricket, trailing 135 years of history since Ivo Bligh had promised to regain them for England after the burnt offering of 1882, was nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if the betting industry – worth more than £7bn a year in the UK alone – had forgotten their existence. Surely this was some oversight, a clerical error. I asked the staff, but was met with blank looks all around.

There were no in-play opportunities and no pictures either as BT Sport, who won the rights to provide the television feed in this country from Sky, had failed to do a deal with the majority of bookmakers here.

It all served only to strengthen my belief that this is the Invisible Ashes.

When BT won the contract – done as part of a five-year deal with Cricket Australia for rights to home Australia Tests (which included this Ashes) – they paid a reported £80m. On completing the deal, the governing body heralded BT Sport’s reach into five million homes in the UK as being a “compelling” factor in the award.

Viewing figures for the first two Ashes Tests suggest BT are falling way short of that remit, recording audiences of less than 150,000 a day (or night!), according to sources.

If you are one of those, you will probably have noticed that there is little real advertising during breaks, more often than not the time being filled by a promotional film for the product that you are already watching. It is the broadcasting equivalent of print journalism’s house ad – the occupation of an inconvenient empty space in the paper with a commercial for one of its spin-off products.

No advertisements have been taken out with alternative channels to increase awareness of where cricket fans can get their Ashes fix and with no highlights packages offered to terrestrial television channels, those without access to BT are limited to minutely brief clips on the BBC news to see what is happening in Australia.

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This is not to denigrate BT’s coverage, which hasn’t fallen too short of the standards set by Sky – and before that Channel 4 – but does imply that by paying over the odds for the rights, they left themselves short in the marketing department. The programmes have been excellent, but desperately under-promoted.

It is this lack of visibility that I would argue is at least in part behind the indiscipline in the England camp. The players – most of whom wouldn’t be recognised if they walked into your local pub – might feel that their relative anonymity allows them to get away with rather questionable nocturnal activities. They are so cut off that they feel no sense of responsibility to the nation. They have their high salaries, their sponsored cars, but no feeling of accountability to those following the cricket back home.

Contrast this with the 2005 Ashes – the last free-to-air Ashes – when Channel 4 peaked at 8.5 million viewers for the final Test at the Oval; the whole nation was rallying round the team and every kid on every street corner wanted to be Freddy Flintoff.

Don’t expect that to change with the scant offerings the BBC has been handed for the City franchise T20 tournament, due to get under way in 2020. Don’t be misled into thinking the BBC is coming back in any serious way.

It makes me say thank God for the radio broadcasts from Test Match Special and Guerilla Cricket, although I know which one I’d now listen to. In fact, that’s why I joined Guerilla Cricket. Expect us to bring you the atmosphere of the Sydney Hill – if by way of Sydenham Hill!

This may be the Invisible Ashes, but it certainly isn’t the Inaudible one.