How cricket's great coup caught on

Andrew Longmore goes behind the scenes and screens to discover how Auntie was usurped
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The Independent Online
AFTER 60 years of the BBC hegemony, it took Channel 4 and the English Cricket Board a matter of weeks to broker the match which marked one of the biggest coups in the history of British sports broadcasting. Yesterday, the implications of the pounds 103m deal were still being absorbed in the offices of both companies: white faces and an understandable sense of shock at the BBC, delirium and similar shock at rivals Channel 4, who at a stroke have cast off their image as the weird and wacky champions of minority sports.

The need for the ECB to stop the national summer sport from descending into the same realms as kabbadi and American football gave equal impetus to the rapid sequence of events. Both cricket and Channel 4 desperately needed to shift ground. But only with the departure of Mike Miller, the former head of sport at Channel 4, ironically to become head of sport at the BBC, and the mid-summer arrival of Nick Kennerley from Transworld International, initially as Miller's deputy, did the idea of bidding for domestic Test cricket take root.

In the end, the difference between the BBC and Channel 4 was not cash but philosophy. The Channel 4 bid, at pounds 50m, was only pounds 4m higher than that of the BBC, but ECB officials liked the wider perspective the Channel 4 team offered on the broadcasting of cricket and their commitment to promoting the image of the sport on the streets. An extra marketing budget of pounds 13m for grass-roots cricket helped to swing the balance, along with Channel 4's promise of early evening highlights and a weekly cricket magazine programme to be shown on Saturday mornings. The meeting of minds overcame the obstacles presented by the schedule clashes with racing on Saturday afternoons when cricket will be switched to Channel 4B, the digitalised channel already available to four million viewers via cable and satellite.

Contacts between Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel 4, and Terry Blake, marketing director of the ECB, date back a year when Four showed a mild interest in screening next year's World Cup. The moment passed, but Jackson suggested that, once the position of televised Test cricket had been clarified after delisting, the ECB should make a sales call. At the time, Jackson was widely perceived as indifferent to the attractions of sport. That misread his perception of sports broadcasting. Sport, he believed, should be branded, like Channel 4's racing and Italian football, not packaged in little Grandstand size bits and cast into the air.

Two events during the summer convinced Blake, over in his office at Lord's, that his vision of a more progressive image for cricket had to be given outline and financial commitment sooner rather than later. During the Lord's Test against South Africa, Blake and his chairman, Lord MacLaurin, persuaded Chris Smith, the culture minister, of the need for Test cricket to be delisted. Neither was sure by the evening they had won the argument. When the Government saw the sense in the argument, cricket needed more immediate oxygen. South Africa were rampant, Henman had reached the quarter- finals of Wimbledon, the World Cup dominated the television screens and the jeremiahs were parading the "end is nigh" sandwich boards past the Grace Gates. Enter redemption in the yeoman form of Angus Fraser. "We've taken a turn at the crossroads," Blake said yesterday, reflecting on the move to Channel 4. "I'm not sure we would have reached the crossroads had Angus been given out lbw that day. We were fighting an uphill battle."

Initially, Channel 4 were lukewarm to the ECB's overtures to pitch for Test cricket. But a strategy paper written by Kennerley a couple of weeks after his arrival at Channel 4 in mid-July prompted a radical rethink in the station's sports strategy, a process already set in train by David Brook, the head of strategy and marketing, and Karen Brown, deputy director of programmes. "My feeling was that we were not a little minority station any more, we were a major terrestrial channel and we needed a major sport behind us to go along with the racing and Italian football, which are very strong brands," Kennerley said. "I pointed out that the highlights of this winter's Ashes series were still up for grabs quite apart from the TV rights for domestic cricket. Cricket was ripe for change."

Kennerley and Blake made initial contact two months ago. Two weeks later, Blake made a presentation to a Channel 4 delegation which included Kennerley, Brook and Alastair Brann, head of business affairs, outlining what cricket wanted from its television partner. Channel 4 were the ninth and last broadcaster on Blake's list. Having decided they were ready to pitch for domestic cricket, Kennerley and his team had a fortnight to put together a presentation. They went out on to the streets and interviewed market traders, Asians, women, cricket fans and non-cricket fans. They spoke to Dean Headley, Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain, highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of cricket's image, showed what they would do to broaden and sharpen the coverage and hit the nine-man ECB delegation smack between the eyes.

"I had no idea at the start whether they were taking us seriously or not," Kennerley recalled. "But I felt we struck a chord straight away and at the end, Lord MacLaurin just said 'Wow, that was very good'. By that time too, Jackson, attracted by the ECB's marketing of the World Cup as the carnival of cricket, had lent strong support to the bid, leading the presentation. "It very professionally hit our objectives of trying to create a wider appeal to the game," Blake said. "They kept delivering the punchlines." Jackson talked of cricket being another "landmark" in Channel 4's history. When asked what would happen if an England Ashes victory clashed with the 3.30 from Haydock on a Saturday afternoon, Jackson replied: "We'll have a firework party." The deal was as good as done.

Now it is up to Channel 4 to deliver cricket's "core audience" and to cross wider cultural boundaries. Richie Benaud will almost certainly be approached, but there will be new faces and new voices, not all English, for the series against New Zealand next summer and the full five-Test series against the West Indies and Australia in the following two summers. "The BBC was a window on sport," said Kennerley. "We want to get inside the window."

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