Angus Fraser: Reckless gamble with game's future

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The Independent Online

Simon Harradine is captain of the third XI at Stanmore Cricket Club. He is an accountant by trade but the toughest task he faces each week of the summer is getting 11 cricketers together on a Saturday afternoon. He is not alone. Membership at cricket clubs is falling and it is the colt section which normally bails him out.

People may wonder what Harradine's selection problems have to do with the Test match between South Africa and England which begins tomorrow in Port Elizabeth, or the new television contract which was announced yesterday. But it is the likes of Harradine who are giving the next Andrew Flintoff a chance to play cricket; it is the likes of Harradine who produce the next generation of cricket fans, and their lives have just been made that much harder by the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision to take live cricket off terrestrial television.

As a kid I used to love the summer holidays. I could roll out of bed, fall downstairs and lie on the sofa waiting for BBC's cricket coverage to start at 10.55. The sound of Booker T and the MGs playing "Soul Limbo" was music to my ears. It meant that I could watch Ian Botham and David Gower, and dream of one day being out there with them. It was here my interest in the game developed, and it was from here that I started to play for Stanmore third XI.

By awarding Sky the exclusive rights to broadcast all home international and domestic cricket, the ECB has not made it impossible for my 11-year-old son to follow in my footsteps, but the fact that parents will now have to pay for this privilege means that cricket will be nowhere near as accessible as it once was.

The ECB will receive £220m from Sky, Channel Five, BBC Radio and TalkSPORT, but it is playing a dangerous game.

It has attempted to soften the blow by entering into a highlights deal with Five. The television station will show highlights of each day's play every evening between 7.15pm and 8pm, when an average of 21 million people watch television.

This sounds good until you realise the cricket will be competing with Eastenders and Coronation Street for viewers. And it is hard to see little Tommy winning the vote against mum and big sister, who want to see what's going on in Albert Square.

At a time when proper cricket is being played in fewer and fewer comprehensive schools this is very worrying. Young men from private schools are taking up more and more places on county staffs and cricket is in danger of becoming an exclusive sport, which is available only to those who can afford it.

Sky promote the sport superbly and their coverage will be first-class. Indeed, without their involvement we would not have had the option of watching England play abroad or counties battling it out in domestic cricket. The number of households subscribing to Sky is on the increase but the viewing figures for matches on satellite are still less than those on terrestrial.

One has some sympathy for the ECB because it has a duty to protect the financial future of the game, and the terrestial television companies were not exactly queuing up for a large slice of the cake. If the ECB had not given the whole package to Sky there would have been shortcomings and these would have affected everyone from the England team to grass-roots cricket.

This deal will put a smile on the face of county chairmen, who can now start planning up until 2009. Many counties had been preparing themselves for a broadcasting package worth considerably less than the previous one and each of them should be grateful to Michael Vaughan and his side for the way they have played in the last 12 months, making cricket an attractive product.

But it is to be hoped this money is not wasted by counties on expensive overseas signings and players who have little interest in the future of the game in England. This money needs to be used wisely so that Simon Harradine can still get a side together in 2008.