For the BBC in particular, the sums are unthinkable: Game Over lights must be flashing all over Shepherd's Bush

Robert Winder ON SATURDAY

For as long as anyone can remember, English cricket fans have been spoiled rotten by the BBC, pampered by long days of mostly sunny coverage. In recent years clouds have swooped over this pleasant arrangement - satellite television has poached some big events, such as the 1992 World Cup in Australia and the Benson and Hedges Cup. But this has only seemed the equivalent of umpires looking at their light meters: the crowd jeers and boos, but the armchair game has not looked in serious trouble.

But things are changing. Did you know, for instance, that the British broadcasting rights to next year's cricket World Cup (in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) are held by an American consortium of five cable operators called CPP (Cable Program Partners)? No? You're not alone.

It's a pretty complicated deal. CPP paid pounds 7.5m for the rights, hoping the World Cup would prove a seductive calling card and an electronic foot- in-the-door for the network salesmen. Exactly what the screening plans are is not clear. It was assumed that Wire TV, backed by CPP, would be the British outlet, and that its recent collapse has thrown the deal into disarray. In fact, Wire TV never had the rights as such and CPP is still thinking in terms of a possible deal with the BBC or Sky. There are plenty of corridors of uncertainty (bigger even than the one outside Alec Stewart's off stump) in the television companies at the moment. Will the World Cup be on telly? No one seems to know.

One man seems sublimely untroubled: Mark Mascarenhas, the Bangalore-born cricket-lover who has turned himself into an American TV mogul, and is the man behind the present wheeling and dealing. In London last week he looked the part: big, bearded and deep-voiced, with a whiff of cigars, mobile phones and late nights at the casino. He is an energetic and persuasive talker; his Connecticut company (WorldTel Inc) already covers skiing, football, cycling, wrestling and boxing (Lennox Lewis comes courtesy of WorldTel Inc). He is the first to admit that he launched his own World Cup campaign with no experience at all: "I mean, my understanding of television sales relating to cricket was zero," he said. But cricket knew less about television than he knew about cricket, and so far his gamble has paid off. His bid for world rights was $10m (pounds 6.5m), a vast increase on the pounds lm paid by Sky four years earlier. He speaks confidently about going past his target of $20m in subsidiary sales. As it turns out, his bid was modest.

"Everyone thought the bid was ludicrous," he said. "But I could see that the situation had changed since 1992. There was competition in nearly every market. The growth of cable and satellite made it an interesting scenario. And this was the World Cup. It's not an average tournament." He will collaborate with the Indian company Doordashan on production, and a team of commentators has already been assembled (Gavaskar, Holding, Blofeld, Kapil Dev, Srikkanth). Screening rights have been sold to all the important cricket-playing countries.

It has been a splendid couple of years for him. But for cricket it has been a crunch moment in the changing relationship between their sport and the TV paymasters. The old far... - er, sorry, top brass - have faced a familiar quandary: do they want to change things, and make the game richer, or leave it as they found it - loved, but poor. Cricket certainly needs the money. Its stars earn less in a year than what someone in silly trousers wins in a weekend for fluking an chip at St Andrews. And its professional root cannot pay its own way - it depends on handouts from the televised international circuit.

Some will be tempted to cast Mascarenhas as the villain of the piece, as the tycoon who marched in and flogged the World Cup to the highest bidder with no thought for the audience. But why blame him? If you don't want someone to buy something, don't sell it. And Mascarenhas hasn't made a point of dealing with rich newcomers: outside Britain, the World Cup will be screened by established national networks. But it may be a sign of the times here that the BBC and Sky had to shoulder arms and watch as a fast, straight ball knocked their stumps out. For the BBC in particular, the sums are unthinkable: Game Over lights must be flashing all over Shepherd's Bush.

"I talked to all of them," said Mascarenhas. "All the terrestrial channels here. They were extremely interested. But nobody made an offer. The door's still open, but the problem is that cricket has never been commercially measured in this country."

It can hardly be bad for cricket if it starts to scoop up serious money. And for every viewer who feels an entrenched right is being taken away, there will be plenty thrilled to wave it goodbye. Still, all this moving and shaking confirms the fact that the big decisions affecting cricket are being taken far from London. The fond English idea that we somehow run the game is a poignant fantasy.

There might be murkier implications. If big events are going to be snapped up as loss leaders by ambitious companies trying to win market share, there will almost certainly be a different highest bidder each time. Sports fans will end up with more dishes than a washing machine, and enough cables to drive a broadcasting company of their own. If things go really mad, the rights will be bought by a cricket hater, who will happily spend millions to empty our screens of cricket altogether.

And just imagine what the BBC would do with all that empty airtime: five- day interviews with Damon Hill, probably, with lots more canoeing and hot-logging. It doesn't bear thinking about. But one way or another, cricket has acquired an unlikely feature: an American accent. It really is possible to imagine the World Cup in California, or Florida one day. Welcome to Tampa, the home of World Cricket. There could be a theme song by Julio Iglesias or a Disney-sponsored golden duck award for the kids. Don't laugh. It's only a matter of time - or money.

Jim White is on holiday

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