The Sky coverage of the Ashes has been widely applauded, but for English fans seeing test live test cricket does not come easy.
For any cricket lover the current Ashes series must rate as a highlight on the cricketing schedule and so far this current series has delivered on the pre-series anticipation. Like many others I have been pretty much glued to the couch each evening over the last fortnight, and it is only now, with a break between the second and third tests, that have I found time for many a domestic duty that really should be carried out on a nightly basis.
In addition to the gripping nature of the cricket played so far, the nightly ritual has proved to be even more absorbing for the fact that I have enjoyed immensely the coverage provided by Sky Sports. Listening to the host of ex-England captains (Beefy, Gower, Athers, Nas etc), the (adopted Englishmen?) great West Indies quick Michael Holding and the twisting and turning Lanky tones of Bumble has added much to the fascinating start to the series.
While, for the most part, my attention during the coverage has only strayed to consider how much saliva Ponting rubs into his hands each day, it is hard not to notice the vast difference between English cricket grounds and their Australian counterparts.
The most obvious difference is clear: English grounds have relatively small crowd capacities whereas the vast majority of Australian grounds have big capacities. The difference in capacity between the countries two largest grounds is stark. The MCG can hold just under 100, 000 spectators (allowing for seats blocked by sight screens), whereas the UK’s biggest capacity ground, Lord’s holds approximately 32, 000. In fact, such is the difference between the two countries ground sizes that Australia’s three biggest grounds, the MCG, the SCG and the GABBA easily hold more spectators than the UK’s eight test match venues combined.
What is the significance of this? Well, even if you believe that English cricket grounds are more aesthetically pleasing than Australia’s concrete stadiums, it is hard to argue against the premise that allowing as many people as possible to see live test cricket is one of the best things administrators can do for the state of the game. While smaller stadiums obviously seat less people and therefore generate less revenue (an important matter for administrators) I think it also needs to be considered that these smaller grounds don’t provide the hostile atmosphere that can unsettle an opposing team.
Just think of how daunting it must be for teams touring Australia to walk out into the cauldron that is MCG on Boxing Day. For opposition batsmen it must feel like the loneliest place on earth. And that’s just how it should feel. As such, Melbourne spectators show great respect to an opposing batsman who excels in front of a big crowd at the MCG, and applaud accordingly.
The other area of concern is the matter of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) selling the television rights to England home series to Sky Sports for the period 2006-09. By this it would appear that their chase for increased revenue dollars is in fact in opposition to letting more people witness test match cricket. Under this arrangement only those willing to pay £400 a year for Sky, or watch it at a pub, will have the opportunity to watch this year’s Ashes, whereas in 2005 the series was broadcast on free-to-air (FTA) broadcaster, Channel 4. In stark contrast, Australian’s are able to watch home test matches on FTA television and, due to Australian Government broadcasting law, away Ashes series must also be shown in full on FTA television.
These issues are investigated by William Buckland in his book Pommies: English Cricket through an Australian Lens. In it Buckland argues that these factors are heavily related to the fact that since 1987, Australia has won 34 Ashes test to England’s nine, and also won four World Cups to England’s none.
The capacity, or the lack thereof, of English test match venues and television rights deals, rightly raises the question of the future of English cricket when watching it live is seemingly becoming the domain of the those that can afford it – times are tight after all. Surely the aim of the ECB, when considering future broadcasting deals and possible stadium developments, is to get as many people watching live cricket as possible. With an Ashes record of 9-34 over the last 22 years, surely it would not be such a bad thing to follow the Australian example on these matters.
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