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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