Letters: Why can’t we have one Test a year on terrestrial TV?
In a letter to the Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast, Ben Hayes puts forward the case for one Test a year to be broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK.
I feel it important to stress I am not ‘against’ Sky Sports. The quality of the coverage, analysis and off-script discussion can often be as enjoyable as the live action itself. It’s a massive part of why I and so many others love watching Test cricket. I would never want to lose that.
In fact, I think if you were to lose that quality of coverage in exchange for all Test matches being aired on terrestrial television, it may even be detrimental to the ‘product’. I should also say that although T20 cricket does not hold my attention in the same way Test cricket does, I do not oppose its existence. I believe all formats can exist and thrive, given the correct amount of care and common sense is applied.
We all know the importance of the broadcast deal to the ECB. Sky’s current deal sees runs until 2028, and is worth £220 million per-year. That money is clearly imperative to help grow the game at all levels and across genders. I also commend the new deal’s commitment to show two free-to-air women’s T20I fixtures, as well as a minimum of eight women’s Hundred fixtures.
That, in addition to the welcome sight of men’s T20Is being shown on the BBC last year, and Sky’s decision to put both the 2019 and 2022 World Cup Finals on free-to-air television is clearly a step in the right direction, perhaps even an acknowledgment that no amount of money can promote the game to the same extent that simply allowing people to watch it.
I just feel things could go further, that there is a lack of basic logic being applied. There is an assumption that Test cricket – the stated pinnacle by so many in the game, young and old – is inaccessible and not worthy of new eyes.
This chart I created paints a sad picture. It looks at the average number of viewers across the day the respective Ashes series was won (in each case by England).
As you can see, a dramatic decline since 2005 when Channel 4 had the rights. And only trending downwards. Understandable? Yes. Concerning? Deeply.
2005 is seen as a magical series which we may never see the likes of again, but how much of that comes down to narrative? In 2015, despite England’s home dominance in 2013 and 2009, Australia were odds on favourites to win the series. The England side that travelled to Australia in 2013-14 on that infamous tour had been physically ripped apart by a combination of Mitchell Johnson, the selectors and a flurry of retirements. After the home series loss to Sri Lanka in 2014, and the disastrous World Cup Down Under, Alistair Cooks captaincy was under the kind of media pressure I thought was specially reserved for Premier League managers.
The 2015 side defied expectations and won comfortably, with some incredible moments along the way. If you had millions watching, alongside some smart narrative building from broadcasters, who’s to say that series wouldn’t be placed somewhere close to ’05 in our collective memories?
I’m clearly not the first person to ever pose this question. A quick online search shows plenty of (unfortunately failed) petitions to bring Test cricket into the governments ‘Group A’ of listed events. This is a set of ‘protected’ sporting events – including Wimbledon, The Grand National, and Rugby World Cup Final – that must be shown on free-to-air television. All of this brings me back to one question: Is it our duty as fans of the longer format to fight for it to receive the attention it deserves? I believe that it is, and that there’s feasibly two ways to do so:
- A well backed petition to bring, let’s say, the Lords Test against Australia into the governments Group A of protected events.
- Pressure on Sky Sports to allow a free-to-air broadcaster to show a solitary Ashes Test Match.
The question I would love answering is this: What would the financial implications be for Sky if they allowed a free-to-air broadcaster the rights to solitary Ashes Test? If the chosen Test is even 25 per cent as entertaining as those we saw last summer, what would happen, for example, to Now TV subscriptions for the remainder of the series? That is a metric that is very easy to measure for Sky. Perhaps more difficult to measure is the effect it would have on younger generations and participation, but I’m confident it would not be negative.
The numbers suggest that if you put Cricket on TV, people watch it.
The 2019 World Cup Final was watched on Channel 4 by a peak audience of 4.5m (that doesn’t include those watching on Sky, online, or in pubs). What’s more, that broadcast coincided with one of the all time great Wimbledon men’s finals. As well as the British Grand Prix. The away Test series against India in 2021 (aired by Channel 4) drew peak audiences in excess of 1m on four out of five days. That’s despite the 4am start time!
It seems that in an attempt to grow the game, everything else is being done. We’ve had limited overs games on terrestrial television, record investment, even a whole new format. What is the harm in challenging the assumption that Test cricket is inaccessible and not worthy of new eyes.? Or should I say, what is the cost of challenging that assumption?
I believe that all of the ingredients are there for a truly magical summer. England have not won the Ashes since 2015. James Anderson – arguably one of England’s finest ever sportspeople – is approaching 700 Test wickets. Ben Stokes has redefined how a sport is played. Australia are a brilliant team that will challenge that recent redefinition.
All of that, playing out across the natural beauty that Test cricket in this country offers, is incredibly exciting. It feels fundamentally wrong that so few people will get to see it, let alone understand why it’s so significant.
People should be given the chance to make their own decisions on Test cricket, rather than just accept it is not an entry-point to the sport.