Friday, October 22

The return of Channel 4 would be a significant and moving development for test cricket | England in India 2020-21


Ffifteen seconds of life. Calling Richie Benaud and Tony Greig. Calling Michael Atherton, Ian Smith, and Dermot Reeve. Ten seconds. Dust off the Analyst’s truck and turn on the Snickometer. Apply a final coat of varnish to Mark Nicholas. Five seconds. All to positions. Queuing at Lou Bega in three … two … one.

Unfortunately, as tempting as the idea of ​​getting the old gang back together for one more job may be, it’s at this point that you run into some logistical problems. On the one hand, Atherton has a contract with Sky Sports. Nicholas is enrolled in TalkSport, while Benaud and Greig have sadly walked away from the long delay of rain in the sky. It’s probably best to take the Indian TV broadcast for now.

Nonetheless, for those of a certain age, the possibility of Channel 4 winning the broadcast rights to the England vs. India series Test, although it has yet to be confirmed at the time of this writing, feels like a significant development, perhaps even poignant. Above all, it would rekindle a partnership that between 1999 and 2005 spawned some of the most memorable sports ever seen on our screens, and reinvented the look and sound of a sport. It’s easy to forget how controversial all of this was at the time. The end of the BBC’s control over test cricket was hotly debated in parliament.

The angry traditionalists vowed never to see the sport again. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph warned of Channel 4’s plan to ruin test cricket with “multiculturalism” and “inappropriate razzmatazz.”

Instead, what happened, for a nation that grew up in Tony Lewis’s sober cream-white hue, was like walking through a mirror. Everything about Channel 4’s coverage, from the titles to the camera work, the sound and the presentation, felt like it had been broadcast from the future. Looking at it now, it’s remarkable how little has happened – from the fascinating Saturday morning masterclasses with Brian Lara and Shane Warne to technologies like Snicko and Hawk-Eye that remain staples of coverage today.

But most important of all was the tone. What distinguished Channel 4’s coverage was that it had been crafted by people who loved cricket so clearly and without shame, and wanted to tell everyone about it. For most of my childhood in the suburbs, cricket had felt like a dirty little secret, a stigma, an elegant obsession. The kind of things that marked you on your street as a little strange. Channel 4 reassured us, encouraged us, made us feel comfortable with who we were.

At that point, when we get to the traditional mid-spine pause, you’re probably thinking something like: yes, Jonathan, great. But is this really anything more than an exercise in mindless rose-tinged nostalgia?

The answer is that we don’t really know yet, and not just because of the slim chance that Sky or BT might make one last attempt to grab the rights. The real question, rather, is whether this short-lived triangular relationship between a sport and a broadcaster and an audience exists even in an era of streaming services and snack video clips.

Channel 4's coverage of test cricket from 1999 to 2005 was ahead of its time and culminated in a great moment for English cricket.
Channel 4’s coverage of test cricket from 1999 to 2005 was ahead of its time and culminated in a great moment for English cricket. Photograph: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

The idea of ​​a whole new generation of potential young fans signing up for county memberships after stumbling across the Chennai test at 6 a.m. seems fanciful and charmingly outdated. The open debate on English cricket seems to have been raging in some way for a generation. Now, as the paywalls dissolve, first the BBC and now Channel 4 seem to be rediscovering their thirst for the game, the temptation is to wonder if any of that still matters.

And really, the dominant feeling here is not optimism but sadness: in the face of English cricket’s failure to capitalize on its 2005 bubble, about how the game spent more than a decade voluntarily withdrawing from its audience. Obviously Sky has done a brilliant job for those who can afford it. He is not the culprit here. The real abandonment came from those on the England and Wales Cricket Board who voluntarily sold the lot to them, even packing the best free moments on Channel 5: a total embolism of a channel watched by half a million idiots, curious about nothing else. what makeovers in the home and secrets of Hitler’s bunker.

It’s chilling, we don’t yet know the long-term impact of those decisions. The current generation grew up on the gospel of 2005. But those who grew up later, without the means to pay for Sky, will have had little to no exposure to live international cricket. Perhaps that is why of the 10 England Test male players born since 1995, eight had private education.

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But perhaps we are coming to this from the wrong angle. Maybe sometimes we get a little obsessed with concepts like reach and legacy and the great unsaved. And in any case, what industry experts call “linear television” has had a magnificent year: locked in our homes, traditional television sport has enjoyed an unlikely resurgence. India v England at 4am may not win the sport with many new fans. But it may just bring back some old fans, some lost fans, the same mix of curious, casual and devoted that all sports audiences depend on.

Above all, a new series is upon us, a meeting between two enjoyable teams, and frankly, the more people can see it, the better. We may not be able to leave the house, but at least we will get Root against Kohli. Stokes vs. Ashwin. Archer against Bumrah. If we’re lucky, we might get an inappropriate fuss.

• This article was amended on February 1 to remove the erroneous claim that no children born since 1995 with non-private education had played for England.


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