In cricket in 2021, there’s only one media market that really matters. Trust me, I see the clicks on these articles: if you write one about India and it gains traction there, the difference is remarkable. Now imagine that you’re not a two bit journalist, but instead a TV company selling advertisers access to over a billion eyeballs. India matters.
India are the global revenue powerhouse of cricket, so it is a huge, huge deal that they are about to play their first home match in 14 months. When Virat Kohli leads his men out in Chennai, it will be a welcome return. There’ll be nobody there to see it, of course. That may change later in the four Test series, but for now, it’s TV only. And indeed, to get to the point of this article, it’s that TV audience that will be most important. In England.
England’s tour of India will be the first time that the Test team has been seen on free-to-air television since 2005. After the main Pay TV broadcasters, Sky and BT Sports, decided against bidding for the series, Channel 4 decided that a month’s worth of long-form, slow burn, early morning content was worth their while.
That cricket will be on terrestrial, and that it will be on Channel 4 in particular, is enough to give those of us of a certain age a warm fuzzy feeling inside. It’s worth recapping the weird world of early 2000s broadcasting that saw Channel 4 enter into the sports broadcasting market.
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Prior to 1999, Test cricket was the preserve of the BBC and with that came the conferral of a certain authority, a feeling is hard to explain to non-Brits but which placed the Tests up there with the Church of England, the Queen and rain at Wimbledon in the national hygge. It’s 3pm on a sunny summer afternoon, England’s batting is collapsing, it’s on the Beeb and all is well.
Channel 4 swooped and the world changed. The livery was different. There were commercial breaks. It wasn’t so…staid. OK, they hardly made Test cricket sexy, but they did bring it into the modern world a little. Channel 4 Sport at the time was a confusing place. Horse racing was their staple, with the superbly hipster Gazzetta Football Italia and the mixed bag of mixed bags, Transworld Sport, a magazine show that flicked from kabbadi to Aussie Rules to skateboarding with gay abandon.
When C4 first got the rights in 1999, English cricket was in something of a nadir: the ODI team had been knocked out of a home World Cup before the official tournament pop song had been released and the Test team lost a lop-sided home series to New Zealand. According to the rankings, they were literally the worst team in the world.
By 2005, when the cricket went behind a paywall, England had just defeated Australia in arguably the greatest Test series of all time, the players were household names again. Andrew Flintoff was basically the popular man in the country, our own sort of genius/drunk who took a load of wickets, bashed the ball around and then got so hammered celebrating that he could barely stand. Hundreds of thousands watched the open top bus parade through London to Downing Street.
Then nobody could watch them again. England got better and better, culminating with victory in Australia in 2010/11 and becoming the world’s best Test team, the general public’s knowledge diminished and diminished. The argument about how much money came into the game, and how it has undoubtedly improved grassroots cricket, is for another day: the status of the game fell as less people could watch it. It was no longer the backdrop to summer.
In 2019, as it looked like England might reach the 50-over World Cup Final, it was announced that Sky TV would simulcast the game with Channel 4. Their faith was rewarded as almost 9 million people tuned in to see England win a classic. Last summer, a deal was struck to show two T20 matches on the BBC: again, huge audiences followed. Now, the most prestigious form of the game will get a run. With the nation in lockdown, more people than ever will have the chance to watch England take on the might of India, in India. For us tragics, it’ll be great to see it on Channel 4. For everyone else, it’ll be great to see anything at all.