The merry tock of wallet on leather

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Cricket does not often hit the headlines in October. It's the time when groundsmen are giving the outfield one last trim and greasing their lawnmowers against the winter hibernation; and players are giving their sore backs and shins a rest before heading off (if they are lucky) to some sunny foreign part. So almost everyone was surprised when it was announced last week that the BBC had been outbid for the right to screen England's home Test matches by Channel 4. There was a reflex burst of outrage from the more traditional pundits, a wail of the sort we hear when art treasures are lost to the nation. But perhaps we should not have been so taken aback. There is a new sound in most sports these days, and it was only a matter of time before it reached the corridors of our empty pavilions: it is the distinctive thwack of wallet on leather, and it is a noise that cricket fans are going to have to get used to.

Whether it was a wise deal is #a question no one can answer with conviction until Channel 4 begins to broadcast matches next summer. It may be that the new producers can clear away some of the cobwebs that make cricket seem to most people an old and dwindling pastime; equally, it may be that in seeking to enliven the game they simply crush the charm out of it.

Indeed, Channel 4 might well find itself with an expensive pig in an awkward little poke. Cricket will swamp its daytime schedule inordinately, and the office will be deluged with angry letters should it ever - heaven forbid! - cut to some news flash and miss a wicket or two. And of course it will be hard put to match the casual authority which the BBC brings to such events; its first attempt to "enliven" the game is almost guaranteed to raise guffaws across the cricket-speaking world. Nothing will displease loyal cricket-watching audiences more than to have to sit through endless pseudo-jolly cartoons about the lbw law.

We shall have to wait and see how things develop in this area. Cricket and adverts go badly together - it'll be all man at C&A. Much of cricket's poetry is in the pauses, and there are already fears that cricket will be transformed into mere crack-it. But this might be one of those compromises that turn out to be less fatal than we fear. On the face of it cricket has some cause to celebrate. Like some old MCC roue, it has ditched its long, faithful and these days slightly dingy partner in favour of a younger, more glamorous one (and an heiress to boot!).

There is no doubt that cricket does need the cash injection it will now receive (the agreement with Channel 4 guarantees it pounds 103m over four years, roughly double the value of the BBC contract). The question for cricket fans is: will it be spent wisely? No on#e can afford to be sanguine. The money may simply be used to subsidise for a few more years a domestic cricket structure with virtually no grip on an audience. Almost everyone knows that England's county championship, as presently conceived, is a dud. Giving all this new money to those responsible is a bit like giving the new Bollinger to an alcoholic.

All of which is a matter for cricket fans to brood on and debate. The larger question concerns the implications for television. The impotence of the BBC in the lucrative area of sporting rights has been obvious enough for a while; and this week's news will have come as a further agonising twist of the knife for those who wish to define the BBC's credibility purely according to its muscle-power in these sporting negotiations. But no one can complain who is not also willing to pay a higher license fee, to give the BBC the necessary clout in such matters.

It was certainly a shrewd stroke by the marketing men. The main arguments in favour of the BBC's retaining its long and honourable link with Test cricket were grounded in its being a terrestrial channel and therefore by definition superior to a cable or satellite supplier (Sky). And it is true that the whole beauty of a Test match, as it proceeds, is that it is an easily available national event. But Channel 4... excuse me, but where did that lot come from? Suddenly, defending the BBC's right to cover cricket becomes not much more than a defence of the right to listen to Geoff Boycott - not a very comfortable point for any argument to rest on.

The real basis for wishing that the BBC had clung on is also the reason for believing in the BBC as a whole. As its divine rights are slowly (er, rapidly) stripped away, it has no grounds on which to compete other than excellence. There have been murmurs that BBC cricket has not been as technically innovative or energetic as its satellite rivals. But few have seriously questioned the BBC's easygoing expertise and lightly worn experience on the cricket field. It can be summed up in two words: Richie Benaud. That this counted for nothing against a few extra suitcases full of cash is a subject that ought to make us stop and think for quite a while.

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