With England’s two best hopes of Ashes success all but certain absentees, further withdrawals could turn a highly-anticipated summer into a non-competitive farce.
In the early hours of Friday morning (GMT), the long-awaited Test series between India and England gets underway.
But on Sky Sports Cricket, where you’d usually find all of England’s games home-and-away, you’ll find the second Test between Pakistan and South Africa instead.
Meanwhile, on Channel 4, whose breakfast time staples usually consist of classic American sitcoms such as Cheers, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Frasier, the live action from Chennai will be shown, marking the first free-to-air live broadcast of Test cricket since the 2005 Ashes.
It comes as a big surprise, with Channel 4 submitting a rights bid in the absence of any real challenge from the major pay-TV players, Sky and BT.
It is said that Sky Sports are focusing on regaining the rights to Australian cricket, which they lost to BT in 2016 and are back up for grabs later this year in time for The Ashes, while BT may yet show the white-ball leg of the India tour.
All that is important now though is live Test cricket is making an unexpected, but welcome, return to free-to-air television for the first time in almost a generation, beginning a new chapter in English cricket.
What the impact of this will be in terms of where cricket fits into the English sporting landscape is difficult to predict at this stage, but the potential is there for good things to come out of this.
It’s clear to see.
There are stark parallels between when England won the Ashes at home in 2005, and when they did the same a decade later in 2015.
In 2005, Channel 4 saw average viewing figures of 2.76 million, nearly eight times as much as the average viewing figures of 360,000 for Sky’s coverage of the 2015 Ashes.
In 2005, the country was abuzz with cricket chat. In 2015, more people were watching a rerun of crime drama Columbo than The Ashes at one point.
Sport England recorded that 195,200 adults were playing cricket every week in 2006, a year after The Ashes had captured the nation, with that number falling to 158,500 ten years later.
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the downward trend had continued, although promising signs have come after England’s World Cup victory (that wasn’t a victory), and Ben Stokes’ heroics against Australia at Headingley.
Talking of Stokes, he was one of a few England players who spoke of being inspired by the 2005 Ashes, something which hits home as to why there is a great deal of excitement about the Channel 4 deal.
While all but one of these Tests will start at four in the morning – the third Test is a day-nighter which starts at 9:00 am – this is not a case of how many will watch, but of how many can watch.
As Britain’s schoolchildren continue their homeschooling, perhaps a new audience will learn about this great game of ours, freed, however temporarily, from the shackles of the paywall.
Not that I am advocating for children to completely abandon their schoolwork just to watch Cheteshwar Pujara toil away at the batting crease, but my point still stands.
We’ve had an ODI in the form of the 2019 World Cup final live on free-to-air television, and a few T20s shown last summer too, but this is good old-fashioned Test cricket, and a high-profile series between India and England with a place in the inaugural World Test Championship final at Lord’s in June up for grabs.
COVID permitting, you could have a new generation of cricket fans going to that final at Lord’s having been inspired by what they saw on Channel 4.
I’d love to hear about a new generation of cricket fans going down to their local cricket clubs next summer too for those same reasons.
Then cricket will be in a secure place.