England v India Fifth Test: Sky double-century raises free-to-air v satellite TV debate...

But subscription channel points out its huge level of investment

cricket correspondent

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, if he is still alive, will doubtless be apoplectic. Swathes of middle England might profess to join him while sneaking a look. It is a debate that will always rage.

The fifth Test at The Kia Oval, which starts on Friday, is the 200th game broadcast by Sky involving England. It seems more, it seems Sky has always been around. But it still annoys tracts of the casual sports-watching public, and worries others, that cricket is losing a core audience, and probably does not annoy or worry the rest who have never known or cannot remember any different.

It is a landmark which serves to point out the changes in the broadcasting landscape. The argument of those who continue to resist Sky’s coverage, whose excellence is beyond argument, is that cricket, especially Tests, should be on free-to-air television, not a subscription channel.

They fear that too many people, who may not be sports nuts but quite like the odd session or two, are being deprived of the chance to watch it and that in the long run the game will wither. It is a dilemma that those running the game resolved long ago.

“It is not possible to sell a product to somebody who doesn’t want to buy it,” said an England and Wales Cricket Board spokesman, repeating a well-rehearsed debating point. “The last time the rights were up for sale there weren’t any bids from free-to-air broadcasters and in 2008, when the BBC announced its Formula One coverage, the BBC made it plain that they were changing their approach to sport, which didn’t involve live Test cricket.”

It was then that Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, a man who can come up with a well-honed aperçu, especially when irked, asked: “And how many people in the country play Formula One?” Sky’s coverage has changed the finances of the game since it acquired the domestic rights at the start of the 2006 season. But it is instructive to note that the first Test Sky showed was the epic match between England and West Indies in Jamaica in 1990.

England won a famously improbable victory by nine wickets. Sky’s most insightful commentator, Nasser Hussain, played in it. England’s Tests abroad have never been shown on free-to-air TV – and were never likely to be. Sky naturally wanted more and finally took over from Channel 4, which in 2000 had replaced the BBC – which even then was distinctly unbothered.

Bryan Henderson, Sky’s executive cricket producer, said: “The free-to-air debate always raises its head and always amuses me to an extent. It’s up to the ECB who they distribute the rights to. They decide on a package and we bid for that package.

“We place a huge premium on exclusivity and if the ECB were to change that there would clearly be a huge financial shortfall and the ECB clearly don’t want that,” he added. “It is nearly 10 years since there has been a Test on free-to-air television.

“In that time England have gone to No 1 in the world and I think they have used the resources very well. We’re a subscription channel wanting to give the best service to our customers, but obviously people want England to win and play attractively, and viewing figures reflect that.”

Henderson, a Scot whose passion for cricket led him to leave his job in the City for television, took over last year. He rightly points up the high and evolving production values – “the high-tech pictures from 1990 look horrendous now and no doubt we’ll be saying that in 15 years of 2014” – and insists that the sole qualification for being a Sky commentator is not to be a former England captain – “they tend to be the best analytical minds and that translates into being the best talkers a lot of the time.”

Henderson thinks that Hawk-Eye is the most valuable gizmo but his coverage now makes great play of the Sky cart, in which players give on-the-spot analysis of what has just happened. They are usually perspiring and game-soiled but it works, partly because they are looking at pictures rather than having a microphone thrust under their nose, partly because of Ian Ward’s dexterously friendly probing.

As executive producer, Henderson wants to be inclusive and recognises the input of the technical team. He is essentially a fan with a camera. “To have grown up as a cricket fan in Edinburgh, I was only interested in buying a Duncan Fearnley Attack With Ian Botham cricket bat and, now I’m working with him and trying to avoid him on a night out, I have to pinch myself now and again.”

Sky’s 100th match was at The Oval, which Pakistan forfeited after being accused of ball-tampering. Something similar would not be welcome this week, except perhaps for viewing figures, and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells would probably blame the broadcaster.

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