Ashes to ashes: MPs say TV deal could kill cricket fervour

The Ashes fervour that gripped the country last summer may never be witnessed again because of the disappearance of live Test cricket from free television, MPs have warned.

In a scathing report, they declared that the deal to hand exclusive Test match broadcasting rights to BSkyB from this year could sound the "death knell" for live coverage of international cricket on free television, warning it "may never again" be seen outside pay-to-view channels.

MPs attacked the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for reneging on a "gentleman's agreement" reached in 1998 to keep a substantial amount of cricket on free-to-air television, and criticised ministers for failing to intervene.

The MPs also attacked the BBC and ITV for failing even to bid for rights to broadcast live Test matches or highlights, leaving Sky free to sign the contract for England Tests until 2009. The rights to show cricket highlights went to channel Five, the only broadcaster to bid.

Channel 4 viewing figures exceeded eight million last summer during England's nail-biting bid to win the Ashes for the first time since 1987. Ashes mania swept the country during the summer and thousands witnessed the England team's celebrations in central London.

But euphoria turned to fury among fans about the exclusive Sky deal, which was agreed before the Ashes tour generated huge new interest in the game.

Members of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee warned: "Without a renewed interest from terrestrial broadcasters and a commitment from the England and Wales Cricket Board to maintain a substantial proportion of live coverage on free-to-air television, the committee is concerned that live Test cricket may never again be shown free-to-air."

MPs demanded that the Government draw up a legally binding requirement that significant cricket remains on free television when the broadcasting rights come up for renewal.

But they stopped short of calling for Test cricket to be put back on the "A-list" of sporting events - known as the crown jewels - which, by law, must be shown on free-to-air channels.

Under an informal agreement between the Culture Secretary at the time, Chris Smith, and the chairman of the ECB, Lord MacLaurin, the cricketing authorities said they would ensure live Test cricket was not removed from free television. The committee's report expressed "profound disappointment" that the agreement had been scrapped. It said: "What is evident to this committee is the terms of that agreement have manifestly been breached by the ECB with the tacit approval of DCMS. Whatever the good intentions and pragmatism of the decision at the time, the gentleman's agreement has sadly proved totally ineffectual."

The committee expressed particular disappointment at the BBC's failure to bid for the cricket. MPs said: "Had the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all made bids, the ECB could have insisted that they were not prepared to sign an exclusive deal with anyone. We are concerned about the ECB's timidity in not insisting upon a non-exclusive deal. A clear signal from the outset that an exclusive deal was not on the table may have substantially altered negotiating positions in the ECB's favour."

The committee's Conservative chairman, John Whittingdale, said: "The failure of the Government, the ECB and the terrestrial broadcasters to ensure the next Ashes series is at least in part broadcast free-to-air has rightly enraged many fans and players."

The Tory sport spokesman Hugh Robertson said the Government had misled the public.