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‘Cricket a sport for the many for first time since 2005 Ashes’ – Lawrence Booth

Lawrence Booth by Lawrence Booth
@the_topspin 5 minute read

England claimed their inaugural men’s Cricket World Cup trophy at Lord’s on Sunday after beating New Zealand in one of the most extraordinary cricket matches ever played. After a triumphant return to free-to-air TV, the argument that cricket was as visible as it could have been has been trounced, writes Lawrence Booth.

You could, if you want, just pick your subplot. Was it Ben Stokes’s post-Kolkata, post-Bristol redemption? Was it Jofra Archer’s preternatural calm, a 24-year-old asked to do the job of a veteran? Was it Jason Roy’s run-out of Martin Guptill after two fumbles earlier in the super over?

Heck, was it the umpires’ failure to implement Law 19.8, one of those pieces of cricket pedantry that lies untouched in a dusty vault, beyond the reach even of the officials?

Was it Kane Williamson’s graciousness in defeat? (And, seriously, his performance at last night’s press conference was one for the ages.) Was it England’s outrageous luck, or New Zealand’s miserable misfortune? “Kids, don’t take up sport,” tweeted Jimmy Neesham, the man at the other end as Guptill dived in vain for his place in history. “Take up baking or something. Die at 60 really fat and happy.”

Was it all these things and more? Because there was a bigger picture at play – and thankfully the bigger picture was available for all to see on Channel 4. Early viewing figures suggest a combined peak audience on Channel 4 and Sky of 8.29 million, outdoing the fabled audience who viewed the Trent Bridge Ashes Test of 2005, until now the high-water mark of English cricket’s relationship with the telly.

Of the 8.29 million, over 5 million watched on Channel 4 – and it would have been higher had the men’s final at Wimbledon not turned into an all-time epic itself, pulling in a peak figure of 9.6 million as Federer and Djokovic tussled on Centre Court. It was also being reported that BBC Online’s coverage of the cricket was the most-hit live story in its history.

Gloriously, Sky’s decision to share its coverage means cricket is on the nation’s lips for the first time since that Ashes.

Tube stations scrawled congratulatory messages on whiteboards. The Today programme’s ‘Thought for the day’ slot on BBC Radio 4 was about the cricket. A colleague spotted a young girl bowling by herself to three stumps in a west London park. The anecdotes will flood in over the next few days, and will – given a fair wind – sustain the conversation all the way to the start of the Ashes at Edgbaston on August 1.

Schoolkids flocked to The Oval this morning to meet their heroes, bleary-eyed or otherwise. They will all want to be the next Stokes now – or Archer or Jos Buttler or Jason Roy or Eoin Morgan. They will want to hold a bat or a ball and see what they can do. (I can report that the kids went particularly mad for Archer.)

This is what happens when cricket feels like a sport for the many, not the well-heeled few. Does this point really need making? For years, some of us were told the free-to-air debate was, if not dead, then a red herring. Kids don’t watch terrestrial TV, they said. Look at the digital hits, they said. Think of the… money!

Yet the ECB have woken up to the problem. It’s why they commissioned The Hundred for next season – something new and manageable for the BBC to reconnect with the summer sport. For all the criticism that competition has faced in advance, it is now more likely to begin with a spring in its step. And whether you like The Hundred or not, English cricket needs it to succeed for all sorts of reasons.

Even Sky, whose previous tendency when faced with criticism was to circle the wagons, made a decision for the greater good.

Cynics will argue that it was nothing more than a PR stunt, but think of the risks: faced with the predictable evidence – that a terrestrial channel can attract more viewers than a satellite rival – the ECB will be under pressure come the next round of broadcasting rights to break Sky’s monopoly on live England cricket, even if it means a hit to the bottom line.

The argument that cricket was as visible as it could have been is over, for ever. Yesterday was what sport is all about. It turns out that having lots of money is only part of it.

Lawrence Booth is editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and a cricket writer for the Daily Mail

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