Major finds plan just isn't cricket

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The Independent Online
John Major joined in the row over Labour's decision to exclude cricket from its planned academy of sporting excellence yesterday, describing the move as "a huge error" that could lead to the game being ambushed by satellite television.

The former prime minister spoke out with the support of Conservative Central Office after returning from holiday in France and reading of the plans with dismay.

Mr Major, a devoted and knowledgeable cricket fan, issued a statement in which he said Labour's plans for the pounds 100m centre to concentrate on Olympic and non-commercial sports instead of rugby, cricket and football showed how little the Government knew about the country's sporting heritage.

Yesterday, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, met Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the English Cricket Board, in an attempt to defuse what is growing into a major embarrassment for the Government. Lord MacLaurin had challenged Mr Smith to remove cricket from the protected list of sports that must remain on terrestrial television if it was to be excluded from the academy. That way, cricket could afford to fund its own academy, he said.

On the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Smith refused to rule out that option, causing consternation among armchair cricket fans who do not have satellite dishes and leading some observers to question Tony Blair's continuing cosy relationship with Rupert Murdoch, owner of the BSkyB satellite television company.

In his statement, Mr Major said: "The Labour government have made a huge error in excluding cricket, rugby and football. They should admit their mistake now and reverse the policy before it makes a mockery of our nation's sporting ambitions.

"What the Labour government has done is to take out those sports which are at the heart of the nation. The pride that the whole nation feels over the success of the British Lions and our teams at Euro 96 should be recognised through a place in the sporting academy."

During his meeting with Lord MacLaurin, Mr Smith said that cricketers would be allowed to use some of the academy's facilities - such as sports science and medicine - and he invited the English Cricket Board to apply for lottery money to fund its own academy. The ECB had already published blueprints for a centre of excellence.

Mr Major, however, was not impressed. "The offer of future lottery money is simply a figleaf to cover their embarrassment at excluding this sport from the academy," he said. "Taking cricket out of the protected list of terrestrial television sports could be the price of this folly - a move which would stop millions of people from watching Test cricket, many of them retired or on low incomes."

After his meeting with the ECB, Mr Smith said he planned to meet the authorities again with the English Sports Council to discuss the cricket academy plans forward.

"The board have also promised to let me have their views on the review of the current list of sporting events made available for general free to air broadcast," he said.

"We are both agreed that a proper balance has to be struck between the interests of television viewers who want to see world-class cricket and the interests of cricket as a game in securing its fair share of its financial potential."

Sport and nationalism, page 15