Acceptance of the argument for de-listing by the Heritage Secretary would free the English game to negotiate a realistic rate for its television rights; rejection could cost the ECB pounds 40m, enough to hobble Lord MacLaurin's Raising the Standard report due for consideration by the recreational and first-class forums at Lord's tomorrow.
To put it in the more formal words of the de-listing document: "If the game is not able to achieve the market rate for its events, the future development of English cricket will be placed in serious doubt." The language of the scaremonger for sure? "No, that's exactly what we mean," says Terry Blake, marketing director of the ECB. "Football has changed its whole image with the help of Government, Sky and the terrestrial channels. The game has a good balance of television coverage and is now well funded. Cricket needs to do the same or we will fall way behind."
If MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, calls the tune to the counties, Blake has to pay the piper. The competitive edge of English cricket cannot be sharpened without considerable investment in schools, clubs and the newly influential county boards. Deprived, it seems from the musings of the Government, of the chance to benefit from a National Academy of Excellence, cricket has to make its own way. But until home Test cricket is removed from the arbitrary list of events (the Derby, the Cup final, the Grand National and the Wimbledon finals, for example) designated by the Government for terrestrial broadcast, Blake argues, the game's lifeblood will be subject to an unjust tourniquet.
"We're not saying we want to take Test cricket off the BBC, we might not even take the highest bid, but we need the highest bid to ensure others pay the true market rate," he explains. Sky did not bid for the exclusive rights to home Tests in the last deal, but their competitive presence ensured a three-fold increase in the rate, to pounds 58m over four years. The provisions of the 1996 Act, pushed through by Lord Howell to some Government embarrassment, stopped sub- scription channels from bidding for exclusive rights to listed events, reviving the old BBC monopoly for the new deal, which would begin in 1999.
The ECB believes the Lord's Test should still be listed, with the other Tests subject to open competition. As signatories to the voluntary code of practice, which ensures highlights of big events are shown on terrestrial channels anyway, the most popular part of the package would be preserved - and, probably, at a more sociable hour of night. An acceptable compromise between free market, social provision and sponsors might include three Tests on BBC, three on Sky with nightly highlights available on either channel.
"How can you equate 180 hours of Test cricket with 10 minutes of the Grand National, three minutes of the Derby or 90 minutes of the Cup final?" Blake asks. Particularly when the BBC has a habit of disappearing to Royal Ascot or the Centre Court at vital moments.
Purists are suspicious of Blake's cricketing vision. Multi-vision screens, sightscreens as electronic hoardings, outfields emblazoned with sponsors' logos, you name it, Blake has put a price tag on it. The increase in one- day cricket, a widely condemned feature of the original MacLaurin report, was duly attributed to his commercial hand. (Ditto the idea of a one-day knockout Super Cup for the top eight teams in the county championship, one of the revised options submitted last week.) After eight years at the Board, Blake has heard it all before. Purists v Marketeers. At the age of 43, he straddles old and new; as a long-standing member of Hemingford Hermits CC, he knows full well which parts of the game's heritage are priceless.
"I want cricket to survive and it will because of its tradition and history," he says. "But don't tell me cricket's soul was not alive and well on the streets of Calcutta when India won the World Cup in 1983." Or Colombo in 1996 or, if his dream comes true, London two years hence. "Cricket is at its purest over five days, but for eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds there is an obvious attraction in having an instant result, and I don't think we should deny them that. We have to give counties the chance to draw bigger crowds and, by having regular one-day fixtures, to get people into a rhythm of watching it as football does by guaranteeing at least one home game every fortnight. I can be accused of overegging it, but it's not just about money, it's about attracting new audiences. Why should it be a question of either five-day or one-day cricket? We should be able to do both."
Lord MacLaurin favours promotion and relegation in the Championship and might just pull it off; Blake, you feel, would fancy a more explosive climax - play-offs or a Super Cup, served up before the armchair where the power sits. But, whatever the fate of the MacLaurin report tomorrow, the real battle is still to come and it is one neither Blake nor cricket can afford to lose.Reuse content