Can Joe Root and his England team capture the imagination of a new generation of sports fans? Picture: Brian Minkoff-London Pixels

Gavin Caney ponders whether the game will benefit from Channel 4 covering England’s India trip


YES…

Millions of people have Sky Sports.

It’s hard to find exact figures of quite how many, but it’s certainly much less of a perceived sign of wealth as it may have been in the
mid-1990s. 

The latest set of BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board) figures released in December suggests around eight or nine million households have the luxury of the pay-TV broadcaster being screened into their homes.

But it still isn’t the same volume of people as the estimated 11m who only have terrestrial, or the near 20m who can access both.

And that’s why cricket being back on terrestrial television for England’s series in India can only be a good thing for sport in this country.

More eyes, including lots of youngsters who are home schooling, will see cricket for the first time. More than 1.1m viewers tuned in for day one of the first Test, 500,000 more than Sky’s coverage of England’s visit to Sri Lanka in their last five-dayer. 

Averages were higher for Channel 4 too, despite the time difference causing it to be on in the early hours. 

Lifelong perceptions of the gentry and upper class playing the sport will only continue to be removed as working class youths watch the current crop of internationals strutting their stuff on their TV screens.

If they can get into cricket and realise there are opportunities, regardless of wealth, then that can only be a positive thing for the future of a sport that is finding it hard to keep participation figures up. 

Channel 4 winning the rights to screen the series (four Tests, five Twenty20s and three one-day internationals) in India mark the first time a Test has been screened on terrestrial TV in the UK since 2005.

Who can forget that series? Around 7.5m people tuned in for the climax of a truly extraordinary Ashes that had almost all of the country talking about a bit of bat on ball and reaching for their stumps that summer. 

Test cricket disappeared behind a paywall thereafter and it’s not a surprise that arguments can be made for general interest in the sport decreasing as a result.

But now Channel 4 are back, there’s a golden opportunity to build on the free-to-air excitement gained from its coverage of England’s sensational 2019 World Cup win. If Joe Root and co can put on another show, perhaps a whole new generation will be interested in cricket again.

NO…

Don’t think for one second that many youngsters will be bothered about Test cricket’s return to terrestrial.

They’ve grown up watching what they want on demand. They’ve been raised viewing programmes on iPlayer at a time they want, fast-forwarding through the boring bits and consuming media when it suits them.

More often than not, short clips on social media is all they want to engage with. And if they’re not doing that, they’d rather be watching their favourite YouTuber.

It may be a generalisation, but the world has changed a lot since 2005 when England were last playing Test cricket on Channel 4.

Social media hadn’t exploded at that point and neither had our brains with a barrage of posts, high-impact videos and everyone scrambling for our attention.

So while some of the older viewers may be delighted about England’s latest Test not being played on Sky Sports, it’ll have little impact on the generation that matters the most – the next one.

Much will, and has, been said about the glory days of huge Channel 4 figures for the 2005 Ashes. 

But that England team was littered with tabloid-friendly names like Kevin Pietersen and Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff. It wasn’t necessarily the truly outstanding cricket that made front-page news, it was the characters that were producing it – and then turning up blind drunk to celebrate their most stunning success – that did.

It helped cricket feel more of a working person’s game for a brief while but, in truth, it’s still – especially at county level – something of an upper class sport for an ageing demographic.

While much criticism has been thrown at the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) for ‘selling out’ to Sky Sports and putting England’s action behind a paywall, there’s a pretty good case for that injection of money having saved plenty of county cricket clubs.

Sky’s millions have also poured vital funds into youth development, helping thousands of youngsters get out on to the crease for the first time. While the bigger challenge remains keeping them involved into adulthood, Sky hasn’t been as bad for the sport as some would have you think.

Coverage, less polished than Sky’s offering, starting at 3am is going to have little impact when it comes to viewing figures too.


Painful for Red Rose supporters

All runs have to come to an end.

That fact doesn’t make it any easier when it happens of course.

But there’s no doubt that in sport, records or periods of glory are there to be broken.

It’s exactly what Scotland did on Saturday, and then some, when they produced a sensational start to the 2021 Six Nations by seeing off England on their own turf.

The reigning champions may have lost only 11-6 at Twickenham but don’t let the narrow scoreline fool you. The visitors were far superior on their way to claiming the Calcutta Cup and a first win in England since 1983.

Red Rose head coach Eddie Jones admits the defeat will haunt his side as they stumbled to a hugely damaging defeat, thanks to a bizarrely lacklustre display. 

Conceding 15 penalties certainly didn’t do them any favours.

Credit to England, they hung in the best they could. Yet Scotland won every battle and element of a match that has left their supporters dreaming of a first serious title tilt since 1999 when it was the Five Nations.

You’d expect a serious reaction from Jones’ troops when they welcome strugglers Italy on Saturday. Yet it might be too late already if, say, France or even Wales, build on their opening display. 

You have to fancy the Scots if they keep this up though – it’s about time they won it after all.