Empty Church’s Bells are Pealing

It’s been a couple of days since England’s extraordinary victory in the World Cup final, and the fallout from it continues to irritate, amuse and entertain. Perhaps most remarkably, for a game of cricket in recent times, the result and the manner of that result dominated the airwaves and print not just in a manner unseen since 2005, but also in a way that few cricket followers could have imagined was possible any more.

It is an interesting counter-factual to wonder – assuming England still won – to what degree the coverage would have been reduced had it not been such a spectacular conclusion, for the sport could not have been luckier in having the first free to air broadcast of English cricket in 14 years be so dramatic. The peak audiences via Channel 4 and the various Sky channels were fascinating, in that nearly 8.4 million people watching cricket at about the same time as an epic Wimbledon Men’s final was concluding showed that the appetite for live sport, broadcast to the nation is not only undiminished, but perhaps might even be increasing. The astounding audiences for last year’s football World Cup weren’t just extraordinary for a multi-channel age, they were extraordinary full stop. In this particular instance, approaching 19 million people were watching cricket or tennis, and while there was doubtless some double counting in the figures as viewers channel hopped, it really ought to put to bed once and for all the idea that live sport is not “consumed” primarily via social media platforms or in bitesize. It just isn’t.

Cricket fluked it.

The average viewing figures are perhaps more indicative, in Channel 4’s case of 2.4 million, and 2.1 million in the morning. These are mightily impressive figures, given on a similar basis to the peaks, it is likely that the various Sky channels were adding maybe another 1.5 million to the total, and when the British Grand Prix averaged 1.8 million on the same day. That the World Cup final could average perhaps twice as many demonstrates a latent interest in watching cricket that the blithe statements of the ECB over the years appear to have failed to factor in. Certainly, that it was a final, with England in it, means interest was bound to be higher than, say, a June Test against Bangladesh (if they’re ever invited again) would achieve, but this is not particularly unusual for any sport where peaks and troughs depending on the attractiveness and meaning of the fixture are routine.

For this cricket fan though, it wasn’t the viewing figures, it wasn’t even the finish to the match itself that resonated most deeply. It was the various reaction videos posted online in the 24 hours following. Fellow England sports teams celebrating are de rigeur, pubs and clubs doing the same following a World Cup football match likewise. Last year I was even in a fanzone for England’s knockout tie against Colombia and the celebrations of that victory and my little video of it even ended up on the news. It’s normal. Some might even say it’s boring and repetitive. But this was for cricket, for God’s sake. Watching Trafalgar Square go berserk, watching pubs doing the same was intensely emotional – not because of the win, not because of the manner of the win, but because the game so many of us love had crossed over not just to the mainstream, but right to the heart of the English nation, even if just for one day. A month ago it would never have remotely occurred to me that this could ever happen, that the outpouring and explosion of joy in numbers that cannot possibly be pure hardcore cricket supporters was in any way possible. It was an affirmation of the power of communal sport watching, and only sport can ever multiply the effect so dramatically. It reached into the national psyche to the extent that EastEnders slipped in a reference on Monday to Ben Stokes and England’s victory in a (presumably) hurriedly filmed scene. Cricket had gone viral.

More than that, it was confirmation of the power of mainstream broadcasters having sufficient mass to offer that shared experience, and to reach out beyond the keen adherents of a particular game, to those who aren’t just occasional followers, but who aren’t followers at all. Social media is representative of nothing but itself, and should never be cited as wider opinion, but the anecdotal instances of people who have never so much as mentioned cricket before gushing over how exciting it was remains heartwarming and moving. And in its rarity, infuriating.

For while this match was available to the public, it goes back behind a paywall starting tomorrow with the Women’s Ashes Test on Sky, along with the rest of the domestic county programme and England’s entire international one, again. Next summer, assuming the Hundred survives intact the grumblings about it from the professional game, there will be the occasional domestic match on the BBC, and a couple of international T20s. As an aside on this point, it is curious how having two different formats on show is not considered likely to be confusing to the new market the ECB are after. Having made such a big thing of the game being inaccessible and requiring simplification (people seemed to cope on Sunday), to then show different versions of roughly the same length is utterly bizarre. Viewing figures will probably be perfectly passable, at least initially as much due to curiosity as anything else. But the ECB were perhaps playing both ends against the middle of this particular debate; if the viewing figures are strong, they will claim success. If not, they could use that to justify selling the game to Sky by saying there clearly wasn’t sufficient interest. Sunday rather holed that argument below the waterline, but then so have audiences for multiple other sports and still been ignored as precedents.

The ECB’s response to the public reaction has been interesting. In advance of the final with the announcement of it being on Channel 4, they were full of praise for their “partners” at Sky and their willingness to share a once in a generation event with the wider public, yet afterwards, and quick to spy an opportunity, the tone changed to become more self-congratulatory. Colin Graves, never a man to put one foot in his mouth when there is room for two, talked about how it took a while to “persuade” Sky to share the coverage, which may or may not be true, but rather beautifully throws their beloved partners under the bus while claiming the credit for themselves. Graves, of course, did also say a while back that terrestrial television didn’t want cricket, which given the alacrity with which Channel 4 cleared all available schedules to show it on Sunday must represent the best disguised indifference in some time.

Never let it be said that the ECB are slow to claim credit for a positive outcome, even ones where they have been instrumental in lowering the bar to such a subterranean level that almost anything can be considered positive. Perhaps for them the worst part of the explosion of coverage following the final was that it came to much wider attention that the intention from next year is to remove 50 over domestic cricket as a top level competition. The small band of cricket tragics (not a term used by anyone at the ECB yet, but given “obsessives” seems fine, it’s probably only a matter of time) might have been vocal about this for some time, but for the wider public, a sense of puzzlement at learning of the removal of the format in which England have just won the World Cup was delicious to many an angry cricket lover.

Sunday’s success re-ignited the whole debate about free to air broadcasting and the importance of such exposure to different sports. Sky themselves covered this question on their news channel on the Monday, before presenter and correspondent came to the shock conclusion that no, free to air wouldn’t be a good thing for the game and that an entirely unrelated broadcaster called Sky Sports had been hugely beneficial, indeed positively benevolent towards cricket.

This haze of celebration will not last long. The memory will fade quickly for most, being an occasionally referenced event whenever the word cricket is raised in polite company. It might be that a few children pick up a bat or a ball as a result, and it might be that an older person (“fogey” – Nasser Hussain) has an interest re-ignited. This is nothing but good news, and while the ECB’s long standing policies will waste the opportunity presented, it is more than anyone dreamed possible a month ago. It’s just that it was, as Matthew Engel put it, day release from confinement on compassionate grounds rather than anything more substantial.

One other small impact of the final – the politicians got involved. It’s been said that the art of leadership is to work out where the people are going and get in front of them. The large audience and thrilling outcome led those who have been noticeable by their complete uninterest in the game to start pontificating about the importance of widespread access. The chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Damian Collins invited Colin Graves to attend to talk about participation levels, but Collins was on the same committee in 2016 that talked about summoning Giles Clarke about the Big Three takeover, and that didn’t go very far. The most likely outcome here is that as the circus moves on, the various comments, questions and deeply held convictions will evaporate like a morning mist as they always have. To some extent, this isn’t even something to blame them for – the diminution of cricket’s importance is never more clearly shown than by the complete indifference of our elected representatives towards it. No votes, few angry constituents, fewer still bad headlines. For a hugely unpopular sporting body like the ECB, that normally works out just fine.

Over the next 12 months, this success will be used to justify the introduction of the Hundred. More than that, it will be used as part of the genesis of the Hundred. But it won’t work. All of the contradictions, media spinning and straight out lies have been skewered by the simple act of allowing the public a glimpse of a game fast disappearing into a wealthy self interested niche. It will not change the path on which we are set, but it will provide the most obvious of counterpoints to the already weak arguments made for the hatchet taken to the sport by its supposed guardians.

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26 thoughts on “Empty Church’s Bells are Pealing

  1. Mark Jul 17, 2019 / 8:05 pm

    It’s worth remembering that when Sky won the rights to The Premiership they were charging customers £5 per month. There seems to be some disagreement about what it actually costs now to watch a full Sky sports package. Do you have broadband with them? do you threaten to leave and get a better deal for 18 months, blah blah blah. But the rate of inflation over the last 25 years on Sky subscription increases makes the govt inflation figures look positively wonderful.

    Going by my own numbers it’s running at over 1200% increase. Which over about 25 years is running at aprox 48% annual inflation. Now of course past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but if the last 25 years was repeated……In another 25 years my subscription would be aprox £900 per month.

    The only reason I raise is this is because there has been no attempt by Sky to cut prices, and go for larger numbers of subscribers. I’m assuming, as they now their market there is a limit on who will subscribe. If you have say 3 million subscribers at price x, and you cut prices say in half there is no confidence you will double subscriber numbers. Which is a shame because if Sky could persuade large amounts of people to subscribe at cheaper prices they would defacfo become the national broadcaster. And the whole FTA issue would disappear. That doesn’t look like happening, and Sky seem to prefer their output as a premium product with a smallish audience.

    Anyway, I won’t be subscribing after this year. I made my decision at the beginning of the year this would be my last year. And as it took in the World Cup and Ashes it was a good time to now bow out. I simply don’t watch enough sport anymore, and have watched relatively few Premiership football matches last season. If anything I watched more Champions league games on BT.

    I don’t want to watch the 16.4 and the enjoyment of a cricket summer is increasingly ebbing away as large parts of the best months of the summer there is little cricket on I like.

    Like

    • margaret Jul 18, 2019 / 7:17 am

      i couldn’t agree more Mark. I’m going to stop my subscription to Sky – if I want to watch some cricket, I can use NOW for a week or month. There’s nothing much now on Sky ‘entertainment’ that I enjoy so I get very little value for my money, I don’t watch football.

      It’s a shame the ECB haven’t used this WC success to encourage people to go and watch their county in the Blast which starts this week. Maybe they will get a chance to see Morgan, Plunkett, Rashid who won’t be involved with the Ashes presumably. But I’ve seen no advertising or promotion at all.

      Like

    • Benny Jul 19, 2019 / 2:46 am

      I switched to Virgin over a year ago. It’s cheaper and the broadband is faster. I included the Sky Sports extra but nothing else (BT Sport comes with Virgin). Don’t know if I’ve ruined Sky’s profits but they sent me many begging letters with special reduced rates if I returned. I shan’t.

      Like

  2. jennyah46 Jul 17, 2019 / 8:07 pm

    Like with Sean’s post, I tried to like this but WordPress would not let me. It’s odd that, because it will allow me to post a reply. A good article Chris. There is nothing in it, that does not sit well with me.

    Like

    • thelegglance Jul 18, 2019 / 8:37 am

      Its weird. Sometimes it lets me, sometimes it doesn’t. The peculiarities of WordPress are beyond human understanding.

      Like

  3. BobW Jul 18, 2019 / 7:47 am

    A good read. I have been having discussions on Twitter about this. There is no doubt not having cricket on FTA has been damaging to the game. But the two arguments coming out in favour of Sky are that 1) people don’t want to watch cricket on TV. This has been knocked on the head with Sundays showing. Has anyone thought how many more people would have been following had the whole world cup been on FTA? Not just the one game. Then 2) The FTA broadcasters don’t want it. Clearly they do. Otherwise C4 or the BBC (for the 100) wouldn’t be showing cricket at all.
    I wonder how much longer the sponsors will keep pumping money into a game that has a declining fan/playing base. Perhaps only then will we get the game back.

    Like

  4. nonoxcol Jul 18, 2019 / 11:12 am

    I don’t speak for everyone, of course, but this is a very large part of why I’m here and I expect we’ll have some fun covering it:

    https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/18/the-edge-review-cricket-documentary-andrew-strauss-andy-flower

    “The Edge’s second half provides an unexpected analysis of the cost Flower’s militarised push for glory took on his troops, seeing off 10 years of post-match interview spin to pursue a more candid line of testimony. Wicketkeeping warrior Matt Prior concedes: “Life as a professional sportsman doesn’t necessarily lend itself to you being a good person – because it’s about winning.” A painfully vulnerable Jonathan Trott breaks down in tears.”

    Now, you know what Uncle Mike told you, don’t be impertinent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • thebogfather Jul 21, 2019 / 12:05 pm

      Waiting for my copy to arrive later today
      May it be sating my thirst for more ECB in disarray
      For though it may be Mood Hoover led
      The continued silk purse from a sows ear is fed

      Like

        • thebogfather Jul 23, 2019 / 1:03 pm

          So, afterr first view (with interruptions and other things to do…)
          ‘Fire In Babylon’ not even remotely close
          DOAG – It could have been, it really could

          First impressions…
          Lovejoy is a dick, nearly switched off after 5 mins, but just now and again he has something to say worth a listen to.
          Monty -spoke well, treated as shit.
          Mood-Hoover – mostly Drill Instructor Sgt from pt1 of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ – then some (few) regrets, mainly unspecified (or argued by the film maker).
          TheBigCheese – open, to a degree, yet aware of his bosses future discrimination, so shuts up.
          Jimmy – runs around on beaches aot, speaks in three word max sentences, keeping his own counsel for the future.
          Saker – surprisingly spoke a lot of basic sense in training and otherwise, players liked him.
          KP – some truthful and trusting early words, some later more serious, mixed with the absurd.
          Comma – a hero as an afterthought, otherwise corporate, training day type waffle.
          Finn – not helped, never regained his mojo, scrapped.
          Broad, Bell, Bresnan – honest with really saying anything deeper which they implied.
          Cookie – kisses his Cows and fails to herd his cattle properly.

          I’ve missed out loads, but was first thoughts, will watch again properly in the next few days

          Like

          • thebogfather Jul 23, 2019 / 1:15 pm

            I’ve deliberately not mentioned the ‘Trott pieces’…

            Like

  5. Benny Jul 19, 2019 / 3:08 am

    Another splendid perceptive article. Clearly people enjoy watching cricket. No problem with the game but maybe other aspects could improve – cost, access, remoteness for many, inability still to cope with the weather. If they want to hook people to the TV coverage, I suggest they replace most of the “commentators”, who don’t commentate but lecture on what the players are doing wrong. Don’t think Bumble has a great cricket brain but he’s entertaining. I’d have Mark Butcher, Rob Key and Isha, who all commentate with a smile for sure.

    Love the “Social media is representative of nothing but itself”. Nail on head. People have always had bizarre perceptions of technology but, simplistically, it just does what we already do but electronically and faster

    Like

  6. Metatone Jul 19, 2019 / 6:04 pm

    So much to say – but can we just take a moment to consider the sheer madness of putting Women’s Cricket behind the paywall?

    How do you build a following and participation from a low level when no-one ever hears about the game?

    A few hardy souls pointed out on Twitter that the Women in fact won the World Cup in 2017 – and part of the ignorance is the historical imbalance in society re: women’s sport – but some of it is because it was behind the paywall…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. thebogfather Jul 20, 2019 / 4:32 pm

    Like

    • thebogfather Jul 21, 2019 / 12:11 pm

      ECB deciding whether every hit goes for six is more profitable than needing a new ball for every ball. Kookaburra currently in negotiations to produce the moon ball which will stay white, wont swing and dies after 280,000 miles so as not to induce variety or wake up a Lords blazer. DRS will also be unnecessary for any decision apart from bowled.

      Like

  8. Northern Light Jul 20, 2019 / 4:38 pm

    Eoin Morgan today implying that the Blast should be ditched, the H*ndred supported and that people don’t “understand” the 18 strong County Championship………
    Well, any residual pleasure I just about managed to fool myself into thinking I felt at England winning the World Cup has just evaporated. Frankly Eoin, if that’s the future of cricket in this county you can keep it.
    If you actually think it’s a good idea, you’re at best a lot more foolish than you seem.
    If you’re just backing up your employers at the ECB because they chuck you hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, you’re a bit of a disgrace. A man without honour. And, frankly, a perfect fit to be captain of England these days.
    There are other words I could use, but I’m trying very hard to remain polite.

    Liked by 3 people

    • riverman21 Jul 20, 2019 / 8:30 pm

      I see Eoin has a gig in the new Euro t20 comp as well as several other Blast players. Interesting that the semi finals of that tournament are held the same day as Finals Day. Which might be awkward for any players who are x2 booked.
      Without the same history of teams be interesting to see how the city franchise format works for them and whether this will be another issue in scheduling domestic tournaments.

      Like

    • Mark Jul 20, 2019 / 8:52 pm

      The conflicts of interest regards the 16.4 and some of the top people in English cricket are beginning to smell like rotten fish. The idea that the Blast should be ended just continues the expanding mission creep of the whole horrible business.

      I was watching the rain falling yesterday evening for the Blast game Sky were covering, and thought the 16.4 will not be immune from this when it starts. The Blast game down at Kent looks like a good crowd tonight. These people are cricket fans and they are being betrayed by a governing body that increasingly resembles Versailles.

      Like

    • dlpthomas Jul 21, 2019 / 2:47 am

      So would that mean that there would be no domestic 50 over or 20/20 competitions? That seems a little foolish.

      Like

      • dlpthomas Jul 21, 2019 / 3:02 am

        On the other hand, if you get rid of all other limited overs forms of cricket, then more people will go and watch “the hundered” ensuring it’s success and eventual world domination. That’s not foolish, it’s genius.

        Like

        • dArthez Jul 21, 2019 / 6:20 am

          Yeah, surprised the ECB are not organising the World Cup for the Hundred in 2020, with all of 1 participating national team (and maybe a token representation from say North Korea) so that they can crown themselves World Champions in the format. After years of failure, they finally have come up with a foolproof strategy to ensure that something / someone is the best. Just the small matter of making certain that it is the only game in town, or that it is only them that is playing the game.

          It is just the ultimate cannibalization of the game. Which was only going to be accelerated after the World Cup victory.

          Now only if the ECB has enough clout to coerce the BCCI into this …

          Like

        • Mark Jul 21, 2019 / 9:56 am

          As Legglance has been pointing out for some time….when they talk about “the game” they don’t mean what you or I would mean. They don’t mean growing the game of cricket, they mean growing their business model.

          And they are effectively putting out of business their competition usung the excuse of growing the game. Abolish 50 over cricket, abolish 20/20 and look what you have left…..a big horrible monopoly run and controlled by thenECB. And like all monopoly’s is will be lousy.

          The counties have allowed this to happen. They are out of their minds. The non franchise test grounds will have to survive with just County cricket. It’s impossible. They will go broke. Who’s to say the payments from the ECB won’t end at some point?

          They need to start organising themselves into an alternative body that may have to break away from the ECB to save themselves from extinction.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. nonoxcol Jul 21, 2019 / 6:34 pm

    The TMS commentary from the final hour of the World Cup (which I missed at the time, because the TV wisely ignored Ganguly and Doull) has just been on Radio 5.

    Really terrific until the very end, when it became horribly triumphalist and the excellent Jeremy Coney was effectively shouted down. I know the rules are the rules, but there seemed very little acknowledgement of how uniquely close the match was. I probably don’t need to tell you the worst culprit (rhymes with whiny boy).

    So I ended up thinking the TV people did the better job.

    Like

  10. dArthez Jul 23, 2019 / 5:39 am

    It may have slipped by unnoticed, but Zimbabwe have been suspended (again) by the ICC. The ICC cited undue government influence, but we all know that is not the issue (the PCB chairman gets appointed by the President for instance, and we all know that the Sri Lankan government does not exactly steer clear from SLC either). It is probably yet another case of ICC cash mismanagement, or rather the ICC cash ending up in the pockets of a few connected crooks.

    On the back of that Solomon Mire has announced his international retirement. And I would not be surprised if a few made a move to play county cricket in England …

    It will be interesting to see how that will work out with the ODI league. Forfeiture? Or reducing the league from 13 to 12 teams, with Zimbabwe automatically finishing last (there is supposed to be promotion / relegation system in place).

    Like

    • dArthez Jul 24, 2019 / 2:13 pm

      And looks like Zimbabwe will have to sit out the World T20 qualifiers for both men and women as a result of this suspension.

      Like

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