John Grogan: Let us all share in the celebrations by keeping the Ashes free to watch

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NO matter how exciting the climax to the third Test match, which starts at Old Trafford today, one thing is certain – far fewer people will watch the action live on television than did so during the memorable Ashes series of 2005.

Back then, of course, there was live coverage available to all on Channel 4, young and old, rich and poor. The end of the final Test was watched by over seven-and-a-half million people on a balmy Monday afternoon and the series peak was in excess of eight million viewers.

By contrast, this time around for the crucial 15 minutes during the finale of the first Test at Trent Bridge, with the last two Australian batsmen at the wicket, Sky’s coverage was watched by just 1.2 million. A week later the peak viewing figure on the Sunday afternoon for the second Test was 1.5 million – far fewer than the 3.4 million who at much the same time saw Phil Mickelson win the Open Golf Championship on BBC1.

It could have been so different. Towards the end of the last Labour government, the Davies Committee was set up to review the list of sporting events which must be offered by the rights holders to free-to-air television companies at “a fair and reasonable price”. This list includes amongst others the Grand National, the Olympics, the football World Cup and the Wimbledon finals.

David Davies, the former FA boss and one-time BBC sports presenter, examined which events had “a special national resonance” and concluded in November 2009 that the Ashes home cricket series should be added to the list. In effect he was proposing that the government put right the mistake that it itself had made in 1999 when all cricket was de-listed.

By the time Davies reported back, the life was already draining from the Brown government and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) lobbied furiously and successfully for delay in implementing the findings. It was still a little surprising to see Philip French, who had been a special adviser to Labour ministers on sports issues including the listed events, take a job as director of policy for the ECB within months of the 2010 election.

The new coalition Government swiftly announced that it would kick the Davies Report into touch and return to the subject in 2013 after the digital switchover had been completed. There is no sign now that they are in a hurry to do so but equally there is no indication that they intend to abolish the list altogether, which after all was first established in law under Mrs Thatcher.

The financial impact of listing the Ashes need not be huge. The ECB would still possess an array of sporting rights to sell exclusively to pay TV should it choose to do so. The idea that Sky, facing increased competition from BT, would walk away from cricket and leave gaping holes in their schedules is fanciful. After all, they have shown they are prepared to simulcast some sport with free-to-air TV stations as is the case with Formula One.

Besides, there would be likely to be much greater competition for the free-to-air rights than in the past because of the existence of digital channels that are available to all. The larger viewing figures on free-to-air can also lead to more sponsorship opportunities which is possibly why all other major sports in the United Kingdom maintain some free-to-air presence. It is worth noting that over the next four years £27.5m of public money from Sport England will be invested in increasing participation in cricket. Moreover, Mike Gatting, the ECB’s director of cricket partnerships, was right to point out in the 1990s that he might never have taken up the game had he not been inspired to do so by watching Test matches on the television.

The most comprehensive annual survey of participation in sport is undertaken by Sport England. This indicates that since 2005 the number of people playing cricket once a week has fallen from 195,000 to 189,000, despite well-funded coaching programmes aimed particularly 
at the young.

Meanwhile, over the same period, weekly participation in athletics, a sport widely available on the BBC, has gone up dramatically from 1.3 to 1.9 million. Finally it is live sport, not highlights, which thrills the blood and unites the nation – a point recognised in Australia where the Ashes series home and away is available on free-to-air television.

Cricket is diminished by the fact that most 11-year-olds in our country, enjoying their school holidays today, will not be able to watch the opening overs from Manchester whereas the only restriction on boys and girls in Sydney doing so is the willingness of their parents to let them stay up past their bedtime.

• John Grogan is the former MP for Selby who has campaigned for Test cricket to be broadcast on terrestrial television.