Share option: former Channel 4 mastermind says pay TV and free-to-air must work together for benefit of fans

The second session of day 3 of the first Test at Chennai – when Rishabh Pant launched his blistering counter-attack on Jack Leach after Jofra Archer and Dominic Bess had reduced India to 73 for four – was the kind of microcosm of the game that you’d like to roll up, pack in your bag and carry around the globe on an illustrated lecture tour about the health benefits of the five-day format.

What’s more, in England at least, it was, after an absence of the best part of 16 years, shown on free-to-air television. The series might prove to be an outlier in that regard – there are surely too many deep pockets at the pay-TV providers for it to be much more than an occasional occurrence – but it would be surprising if the coverage of Bess’s removal of captain Virat Kohli and stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane in a two-hour period that also included Pant’s extraordinary onslaught didn’t produce some converts. Test cricket simply doesn’t get any better.

One tweeter to the Channel 4 studio intimated as much: “Amazingly, after being fairly ambivalent about cricket, three days after being back on terrestrial TV my seven and four year olds begged me to go to the park to play cricket on a four-degree February day,” he wrote.

And it wasn’t just that match. The stars aligned gloriously for Test cricket as three games running pretty much concurrently in different parts of the world went deep into their final days and produced some remarkable drama. India’s pursuit of 381 to win at Chepauk – and England’s subsequent ruthless putdown – began shortly after Kyle Mayers had stunned the cricket world with a debut double century to lead a West Indies shorn of most of its bigger names to victory over Bangladesh, while Hasan Ali stopped South Africa in their tracks as they threatened to level the series against Pakistan.

Like many of us will be getting over the next few months, it truly was a shot in the arm.

It was a pick-me-up, also, for someone at the heart of the effort to re-energise the game at Channel 4 the first time around.

It’s more than 20 years since David Brook masterminded the switch of live cricket to the broadcaster from the BBC. Some people were outraged, figuring that the BBC’s way – which had served the game well since it had first televised Test cricket in 1938 – was the only way.

But Brook, who now plies a couple of trades, combining lecturing on media with regular commentary duties on Guerilla Cricket and cricket punditry for a variety of outlets in the Caribbean, was the perfect mix of two things that don’t always go together: innovation and tradition.

That is clear in his comments as he reflects on those early days at Channel 4, getting in a subtle swipe at the Hundred, the ECB’s new short-format creation whose rationale for cramming the schedule with another confusing, some would say gimmicky, tournament is that some of its games will be featured on free-to-air TV.

“It was front page news back then,” Brook says. “Will Wyatt, the BBC chairman, had said it was ‘unthinkable’ that England cricket would not be on the BBC. Credit to the ECB under Lord MacLaurin [the chairman at the time] and Terry Blake [its former commercial director] who recognised that cricket needed a shot in the arm. Not by casting around for a fancy new format but by bringing a sense of excitement, innovation and multi-culturalism to the coverage of Test cricket.

“‘Cricket Just Got Better’ was our mantra. The Caribbean summer of 2000 showcased the West Indies series featuring Third World from Jamaica as the Lord’s lunchtime entertainment. Sir Viv [Richards] headed up our inner city street cricket initiative to promote the game to the British Asian and West Indian communities.”

As an aside, with accusations of racism in English cricket flying around and the startling statistic that the number of black professionals is down by an alarming three quarters in the past 25 years, it is something still needed today, something to be fair that has been recognised by cricket broadcasters of whatever model in the diversification of commentary roles and the like. And there was good news as we reported earlier this week that BT Sport had invested in bringing five years of coverage of West Indies cricket to these shores.

But with Brook driving things in 2000, it was a case of new millennium, new approach. And it proved a game-changer. There was the jargon-busting and de-mystification of a complex sport in the form of Simon Hughes’ Analyst, funding of consumer research that led to the introduction of Twenty20 cricket three years later, support for new education resources for schools.

And cricket was groovy, in a way that it probably never had been: it was free on giant screens in open spaces and there were DJ sets afterwards, such as by Fatboy Slim on Brighton beach.

It culminated in an audience of 8.5 million for the final Ashes Test of an admittedly captivating series.

But then the game changed back: as Brook, an advocate of the Keep Cricket Free movement – he should be, he founded it – says: “Ironically, the ECB under the new Giles Clarke regime chose that moment, when cricket had regained its position as the national summer sport, to remove Test matches from free-to-air altogether.”

No one can deny that that has benefited the players greatly, but at a cost paid in those who no longer view the game and a subsequent, although not necessarily consequent, downturn in the numbers involved in recreational cricket.

It is no surprise that the return to Channel 4, which came from so far out of the blue it felt it that it was not so much left-field as over the border into another county, delights Brook and there is no sense of cynicism about the pared-back production from the man who put the festival in fall of wicket. After all, who needs three rent-an-opinion pundits sitting round a table when you can have a former England captain in a comfy chair in an almost conspiratorial cosiness with his presenter that encourages insight and hints at mildly indiscreet disclosures from inside the dressing room.

“It’s great to have it back on Channel 4. The series is perfect for the locked-down daytime audience,” says Brook. “It’s great for Channel 4’s daytime audience share – four times what it would normally get – and it cleaves to its remit to cater for inclusive and diverse audiences.

“It makes sense for Star Sports, the rights holders, too. By raising the profile of Indian cricket they will be able to attract subscribers to their Hot Star service for other India away series when it launches shortly in the UK. TV is all about narrative and this series will gain in interest and audience as the drama unfolds.”

But it’s dangerous isn’t it, though, this one-off, this brief dalliance of cricket with its former free-to-air lover?

Not necessarily. Brook is complimentary about what Sky has done in the past 15 years to preserve the template and then build on it – one thinks of the various masterclasses led by the likes of Ian Ward or Nasser Hussain during intervals and rain breaks.

But it must have crossed minds that by failing to beat Channel 4’s bid for the India series Sky and BT have signalled that complete dominance of the England Test market and their desire to ensure exclusivity, are no longer overriding goals. And with away series costing markedly less than their home equivalents – Channel 4 paid anything between £2m and £7m according to who you believe, although Brook estimates it was closer to the former – could this land grab open the door to other terrestrial broadcasters to at least get a share of the spoils?.

Brook thinks it’s possible. “There’s no doubt that a combination of pay-TV and free-to-air provides the optimum mix of income and exposure. One without the other is folly,” he says. “Let’s hope that is acknowledged by all concerned.”

Broadcast Schedule

WT20 2024
AUS v NAM, North Sound (WLW)
12th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST
USA v IND, New York
12th June
Start time: 3:30 pm BST
WI v NZ, Tarouba, (WLW)
13th June
Start time: 1:30 am BST

See the full schedule