BBC caught out by rival's cricket ploy

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BBC RADIO was unable to bid for the rights to cover England's winter Test matches in southern Africa because Talk Radio had paid the South African cricket authorities not to hold a rights auction, the corporation said yesterday. Talk Radio announced it had spent pounds 150,000 on the rights to broadcast commentary on five Tests and a one-day triangular tournament with South Africa and Zimbabwe this winter.

Peter Baxter, the producer of Test Match Special, maintained that money was the key to the BBC's defeat: "The South African cricket authorities refused to talk to our negotiator until after the deal was done. Talk Radio obviously paid them a huge whack to make sure they wouldn't. Talk Radio was determined to get these rights.

"Our negotiator had been trying to talk to the South African Cricket Board for six months and I only got through to Dr Ali Bacher [the head of South African cricket] this weekend, when it was already signed up."

Last year the BBC lost the rights to televise Test match cricket to Channel 4. The Test Match Special producer said the Talk Radio deal heralded fierce competition for the rights to domestic Tests when the BBC's current contract expires with the English Cricket Board at the end of next year's season. "The ECB know of our interest and I'm quite sure Talk Radio is preparing for a big battle."

The BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, said Talk Radio's deal was a watershed for the BBC. "This is about more than money," said Agnew. "Radio network controllers have always thought that no one else wanted cricket, so they could put it on wherever they like. The BBC has to make the commitment to the sport and give us Radio 4's long wave frequency non-stop. This is the wake-up call. They have to make a decision once and for all to give us Radio 4's long wave."

Ever since Radio 3's medium wave frequency was sold off by the government in 1992 the BBC has struggled to find a radio station where ball-by-ball coverage of Test matches could be broadcast. First it was on Radio 5 Live, now it is on Radio 4's long wave frequency - which has provoked protests from Radio 4 listeners who cannot receive its FM service.

The uncertainty about Test Match Special's future worries the broadcast team, Agnew said. "Everyone needs to be reassured. After all, you have to go where the work is and there aren't that many cricket commentators around.

"At the moment I'm facing the none too attractive prospect of travelling to southern Africa this winter for three months to do 40-second summaries for Radio 5 Live, while the people in the commentary box next to me do my job."