A recent silly little video of mine (yes, I still make them, albeit not for YouTube) recalled those ‘occasional day’s holidays’ schools sparingly dished out to their grateful pupils; unlike the Bank Holidays or General Elections that closed the school gates, these rare gifts weren’t dictated by government, but by the schools themselves – ‘teacher training day’ being one of the mysterious euphemisms regularly employed as an excuse to give us all a 24-hour break from the grind. Back then, those of us whose parents were both in work were left to our own devices without fear of legal reprisals; but should the occasional day’s holiday unfortunately coincide with a day in which one parent happened to be at home, the sense of elation would be somewhat muted.
A day with mum, for example, would usually include being dragged to the shops – the shops in question being all the boring ones, of course; M&S, BHS and C&A were the dreaded triumvirate of tedium for a child, especially if mother’s intention was to procure an ‘outfit’ for said offspring with birthday parties, weddings, christenings and Christmas in mind; being transformed into a minor member of The Partridge Family was not necessarily high on the wish-list of many little boys in the 1970s, but it had a habit of happening whenever mother and son were left together.
A day with dad had its own horrors, mind. If father was feeling particularly restless, this could involve a trip to that dismal temple of misplaced masculine aspirations, the DIY store; this in turn might be followed by a ‘lunchtime pint’, which meant yours truly being handed a glass of lemonade in an empty beer garden whilst dad’s drink was consumed indoors at a strangely sedate pace. Therefore, the lesser of the available evils consisted of father strapping himself into the armchair and watching a continuous stream of live cricket. And to me at the time, cricket seemed to be a sport that spanned the entire day.
It appeared to start around 11 o’clock in the morning and would, in many cases, still be on around 7.30 in the evening – yet whenever I caught a glimpse of the screen it never looked like anything was happening. A vast expanse of green with most of it going to waste as lots of static men in white (who apparently shared a barber with either David Coleman or David Soul) stood around and occasionally broke into a brief sprint. The appeal was beyond me, especially when its marathon monopoly of the box meant I missed ‘Scooby Doo’ on the other side. Yes, the soporific ambience might be enlivened by the sudden apparition of a pissed naked man dashing across the pitch and attempting to leapfrog the wickets; otherwise, I couldn’t understand how it could hold my father’s attention, for this was the original ‘Slow TV’. At least football moved.
Yet, the names stuck; a child’s head has plenty of space for storage, and the roll-call of cricketers from the era claimed a good deal of that space through extensive exposure, so much so that even now – all these endless decades later – the mere mention of Tony Grieg or Geoff Boycott or Jeff Thomson or Dennis Lillee or Clive Lloyd is enough to evoke the moment as effectively as a few bars of anything by 10cc or ELO; ditto the distinctive tones of the men who described events to the viewer or listener – Laker, Benaud, Arlott, Trueman, Johnners – poets of the airwaves who imbued the sport and its numerous beguiling terms with a mellifluous, mystical resonance as potent as the locations on the shipping forecast. I didn’t get any of it as a child, but it makes more sense now – well, almost.
Looking back, it’s astonishing to realise this all-day, ad-free cricket coverage once shared the schedules with the Wimbledon fortnight and the two-year alternating of the World Cup and the Olympics; throw in a bit of golf or Formula One and it’s a wonder how a paltry pair of BBC TV channels managed to squeeze it all in without a red button or an iPlayer. But they did. And the only cost to the viewer was the licence fee. Yesterday, we had a trio of major sporting occasions going out live on free-to-air TV for the first time in a long time; aside from the frustrating failure of the respective governing bodies in ensuring their showcase events generated maximum viewing figures by not being staged simultaneously, it was still a refreshing change, if a tantalising one.
Boxing was the first sport I recall taking the bait of the satellite groomers around 30 years ago; I’d tuned-in to the big fights ever since the classic Ali events of the 70s, but the disappearance of pugilistic pursuits from the mainstream took my interest with it; I couldn’t name you a single world champion of any weight today. Football had been the initial beneficiary of the breaking of the BBC/ITV cartel, of course; but the reassuring presence of the traditional Saturday night highlights package as well as FA Cup coverage meant the loss of live league games didn’t have a negative impact on the popularity of the sport – if anything, the opposite applied. Yet, the national game was always going to do alright; not so its summer replacement.
It was a while before cricket followed suit, but the unforgettable Ashes series of 2005 was the last time live cricket graced the screens of non-subscribers. Whilst it’s understandable a sport that struggles to pay its way at county level went for the big bucks in the hope the money would filter down from the one-day glamour competitions, half-empty grounds with few faces under 40 isn’t exactly promising for tomorrow’s prospects. The selling-off of so many school playing fields has combined with a generation of casual viewers being denied stumbling onto the game during the same period to put cricket’s future in a precarious position. Yesterday’s staggering spectacle at Lord’s was surely the most encouraging advert for the sport that the ICC could have wished for; it would be foolhardy to let the opportunity to capitalise on it slip away from terrestrial broadcasters again, as happened in 2005. Cricket once more has the chance to benefit that desirable demographic so beloved of the Labour Party, ‘the many, not the few’.
There’s no doubt – as has recently been proven with the Women’s World Cup – that daily exposure on free-to-air TV enables a sporting tournament to capture the attention of the nation. For all the choice now available, terrestrial television remains the main recruitment tool for sport when it comes to ensnaring novices; subscribers are already converts. Indeed, would the annual Great British love affair with events in SW19 continue to fill the tennis courts of the country’s municipal parks every summer had Wimbledon gone the way cricket went? Yes, it could be argued that the game’s lengthy absence from free-to-air TV screens has further enhanced radio coverage and the legend of ‘Test Match Special’; and those who do subscribe would probably agree the likes of Sky and BT have successfully rebranded certain unlikely sports as ‘sexy’. But to give any sport exclusive coverage on a channel requiring subscription threatens to turn it into a minority interest that permanently excludes the majority – both today’s and tomorrow’s.
© The Editor