The England and Wales Cricket Board yesterday pulled the plug on terrestrial television's traditional live coverage of the game in this country when it announced a four-year deal with BSkyB, running from 2006 until 2009 and worth £220m.
It is the first time that there will be no live Test cricket on terrestrial television since broadcasting of the sport first began in 1938, but the ECB insisted that games will continue to reach the same number of viewers despite the shift to Sky, which is accessible in 10.4 million homes.
Giles Clarke, who is chairman of the ECB's marketing committee and led the negotiations, had a dig at the BBC's and Channel 4's coverage when he said: "From 2006, every ball of every international match will be broadcast live. There will be no switching to soaps or the news, no jumping around channels and no change of start times. It is real ball-by-ball coverage for the first time in many years. Each day's play will start at the traditional time of 11am."
While the satellite broadcaster will show uninterrupted coverage of all England's Test matches, one-day internationals and international Twenty20 cricket, Channel Five will show prime-time highlights of all England's home Test and one-day internationals, except the day-night matches, between 7.15 and 8pm.
This is the part of the deal that is meant to cater to terrestrial viewers. But Five admits that only 80 per cent of viewers at present receive its signal terrestrially. Worse, there are areas of Britain where people still cannot receive the Five signal. The television company owns up to black spots along parts of the south coast, rural Scotland and rural Wales, but other areas which draw a blank include rural Kent and urban Bath.
A Five spokesman insisted: "By the start of our coverage in 2006, 95.5 per cent of people in Britain will be able to receive Channel Five either through analog [terrestrial], freeview, cable or satellite."
The former England captain Brian Close was one disappointed party, saying: "There will be a lot of young kids - and retired people - who won't be able to watch Test cricket. A lot of people will be disappointed, because things have been looking up for England in the past year."
But the ECB was keen to talk up the highlights package. "You shouldn't underestimate the importance of prime-time terrestrial highlights on Five," said the ECB chairman, David Morgan. "Twenty-one million people watch television then, compared between five and 11 million earlier in the day.
"We have ensured more convenient and consistent access to cricket for many people on terrestrial TV by guaranteeing the broadcast of highlights from 7.15-8pm. It is the most popular time for children to watch television."
Under the present broadcasting contract with Channel 4 and Sky, the latter has broadcast live coverage of one home Test match and the rest of the summer produces a package of Test highlights daily. It also broadcasts all England's Test matches abroad as well as the one-day internationals - home and away. Channel 4 covers six home Test matches, and the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy semi-final and final.
A Channel 4 spokesman said: "We hope the ECB does not come to regret its decision to turn its back on the hundreds of hours of terrestrial exposure that Channel 4 was offering."
Clarke defended the move as crucial to the future of the game. "The alternative was a significant decline in income," he said. "Major cuts would have had to have been made in the funding of the England team, the support structure and to county cricket clubs as well."
Financially, there is little wrong with the deal, which is worth some 10 per cent more than the present one which expires at the end of next season. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport admitted that the ECB's decision to turn exclusively to BSkyB was a blow but understood the financial reasons behind it.
The BBC's Test Match Special has been allowed to carry on from 2006 to 2009, in tandem with TalkSPORT - thus a little bit of history is created since they will become the first commercial broadcasters to be granted broadcast rights to live domestic cricket - and the rights sales to internet and mobile phones are also included in the equation.
The ECB said that it received no realistic bids from terrestrial broadcasters, a claim endorsed by Channel 4, whose spokesman said: "We've been substantially outbid by Sky."
Skyward: History Of Coverage
Feb 1990 First English overseas Test match shown on Sky against the West Indies.
Aug 1994 BBC pays £60m in a four-year deal for home Tests and NatWest Trophy. BSkyB gains coverage of England's one-day internationals.
Oct 1996 Broadcasting Act prevents satellite companies owning exclusive coverage.
Mar 1998 In an £8m deal BSkyB and BBC win the rights to 1999 World Cup.
Oct 1998 BBC loses England home Test matches for the first time since 1938. BSkyB and Channel 4 pay £103m.
May 2001 ECB agrees a £150m three-year contract extension.
Feb 2003 BSkyB gains rights to 2003 World Cup.
Dec 2004 In a £220m deal, BSkyB wins rights to England's home Test matches for four years from 2006.
Football (Aug 2003) Sky pays £1.02bn for three years of the Premiership. The BBC acquired a weekly highlights package for £105m.
Rugby Union (Mar 2004) BSkyB pays £100m over six years for England's home internationals and the Zurich Premiership. The BBC has England's away games in the Six Nations.
Tennis (Jun 2000) BBC pays £50m over four years for Wimbledon.
Rowing (Mar 2004) ITV pays £2.5m over five years to take Boat Race from BBC.Reuse content