Can Sky save this dying sport?

Since soccer became sexy, cricket, once football's closest relative, found itself looking like a dowdy aunt
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THE GOVERNMENT'S decision to remove all cricket from the protected list of television events will be seen with mixed emotions.

For the good burghers at the England and Wales Cricket Board [ECB], the news means the chance to finally get TV to pay a fair market price for their product.

For others, the move will be grave confirmation of cricket's diminished status and a final cutting of its ties with amateur ethos, still widely upheld within clubs like the MCC.

The lengthy delay, despite the proposals of Lord Gordon's Advisory Group in March, show what a potentially unpopular decision, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State felt de-listing cricket to be.

As a sport, cricket is followed largely through the media, of which the BBC's coverage is a large chunk and it has no doubt taken some fierce and persistent lobbying to have it removed.

And yet the move, however unpopular is probably a necessary one. As a game struggling to make itself heard above the hip clamour of football, cricket's future has long been a cause for concern, particularly with regard to the young, whose leisure time is now more tenaciously competed for, than at any other time in history.

Money, never thought to have been a problem since the Seventies, has only really become an issue in cricket since football's finances headed for the stars, or at least the Murdoch satellite that orbited them. Suddely, with money to burn and marketing men happy to light the bonfire, football's image became very sexy, succeeding even in catching the eye of those who had previously given it little more than a passing glance.

Naturally, other sports became envious and cricket, once football's closest relative, suddely found itself becoming a dowdy aunt. Without colossi, like Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch, to seduce both young and old, its appeal has perceptibly dwindled.

What's more, its purse, while remaining full enough to keep an antiquated and impoverished county system ticking over, did not contain the means to invest - at least in any sustainable way - in its future. Which is why Lord MacLaurin and his colleagues at the ECB, have lobbied hard to get cricket removed from the A list of protected events and placed on the B list, which means that only some form of highlights package need be shown on terrestrial TV.

The ECB have long griped about the monopoly terrestrial TV, in this case the BBC, have had over cricket, particularly home Test matches. Listed along with such "cherries" in the sporting calendar as the Grand National, the FA Cup final and the Derby, Test matches, along with the Natwest final and including highlights packages of one-day internationals and the Benson and Hedges Cup (both with Sky) cost the BBC about pounds 35m over four years.

Considering this fills approximately seven hours' screen time for anything up to 25 days a summer - as compared to 90 minutes at Wembley or two and half minutes at Epsom - it is cheap TV, something the ECB are hoping will no longer be the case, now that SKY are allowed to sit round the negotiating table.

But if there are those who have misgivings about another major sport selling out to satellite TV when the rights come up for grabs at the end of then year, the prognosis is not all bad.

For one thing, the ECB have long claimed that the highest bid will not necessarily win the TV rights and that theirs will be a responsible decision. With only six and a half million households having access to Sky, spreading the word, will be achieved by single letters alone.

Lord MacLaurin's claim that they "must get the balance right between audience and revenue, so we can get the best deal for development of cricket and the widest access of viewers," is one that has long emanated from Lord's. The practicalities of such a deal, however, may prove more elusive.

The ideal balancing act, would be to maximise both exposure and revenue, though that would probably mean the BBC paying Sky prices.

Of course, now that Sky have a critical viewing mass and no longer need to pay through the nose for events, it could all fall flat, as would any whiff of them merely being used as a stalking horse to bid up the BBC.

What worries many is that the extra money will be frittered away, as it has to some extent in football, on escalating wage packets for players. While cricketers still trail the remainder of the professional sporting world, salaries at least for the best players, have improved substantially over the last few years.

A capped county player, on less than pounds 25,000 a few years ago, can now earn up to pounds 45,000, while those included on a regular basis for England, can earn in excess off pounds 100,000 a year. But while there is no doubt that an increase in salaries will help attract those talented players in two minds over a career, anything approaching the inflation that has hit football would cripple cricket.

With substantial investment already required in supporting cricket's sagging domestic infrastructure, the ECB has promised to invest most of the extra money towards enticing and improving the young. Schemes such as building a more comprehensive coaching programme, while boosting educational initiatives by supporting schools, are apparently just some of the ways in which the extra money will be spent.

Womens cricket, a growth area, as well as greater support for county clubs in becoming centres of excellence, are other areas to which the revenue will be put. Getting Labour to take cricket off the A-list has probably cost something and the absence of an Australian style academy, funded by Lottery money, is no closer to fruition than it was under the cricket-loving Conservatives.

In general, delisting probably has more positives than negatives, though mismanagement of funds must be closely guarded against.

While there will always be those who will have sleepless nights over the potential loss of institutions such as Richie Benaud, there is a greater need for cricket to address its future. Breaking these shackles, cricket may at last be able to face its future rather than live up to its past, something it has been accountable to for far too long.

Among the triumphalists celebrating the Government's decision, no one will be more relieved than the chairman of the ECB himself, Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth. Brought in 18 months ago, ostensibly to modernise the county structure as well as that of the ECB, MacLaurin, has achieved little other than to increase the number of people wearing ECB blazers.

Now those blazers will have some funds to work with, the pressure for English cricket to start performing is on. From now on, providing television does stump up the extra cash, no more excuses will be permitted.