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On this day 14 years ago the BBC lost Test Cricket coverage. A day that changed how live sport was perceived on TV

14 years ago the BBC lost cricket coverage to Channel 4 in a move that stunned everyone and in all honesty heralded the end of the BBC being the natural home for many of our top sporting events. The decision to switch coverage away from the BBC caught many off-guard and in the end it did spell the end of cricket as a Free To Air sport. However the move itself was not a bad one as Channel Four showed that when they really want something then they can really go for it.

As a long standing cricket fan this change didn’t mean a lot to me as heck I was only 15 years old. Looking back though I can see how Channel Four really developed the sport for the armchair viewer. The early magazine show was clearly aimed at the younger generation and it was extremely successful. The BBC had covered the sport but had never tried to engage with the next generation of fans. They never tried to keep up with technological advances. They had their core audience and had no desire to grow it. Channel Four saw it differently.

They brought about the snickometer which showed us viewers at home whether a batsman had nicked the ball to the slips. They also brought about the red zone to show if a ball pitched in line on LBW appeals and hawk eye technology to show where a ball would have gone after an LBW appeal. This was all pretty exciting and futuristic stuff compared to what we were used to as fans and I think we can safely say it heightened our enjoyment of the game.

Desktop Richie was also a favourite allowing cricket fans to keep u to date on the scores from the PCs. Basically in the space of a handful of years cricket had gone from a sport that hadn’t moved on technologically at all for what 15 years and having two cameras at either end so you always saw the batter face on to being arguably one of the most modern sports for the TV audience in the world. Quite something when you come to think of the traditions of cricket.

When the deal was announcers Aggers said, “The quality of coverage that everyone in the world, I think, has aspired to as far as the BBC’s cricket coverage is concerned has come to an end at a stroke.” You can safely say he wasn’t a fan but I think it is very clear that Channel Four took the sport to heights that the BBC could only dream of.

Channel Four of course lucked out with the 2005 Ashes and their coverage was not only award winning it was just sensational. An amazing line-up of commentators (which to be fair Sky Sports have pretty much equalled but not bettered) by the end of their coverage saw the likes of Richie Benaud, Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Atherton, Barry Richards, Michael Slater, Ian Smith, Tony Greig, Mark Nicholas and Simon Hughes they had enough distinguished voices to really hit home and have that gravitas.

Sadly by this point they knew – as we all did – that the sport was disappearing to Sky permanently. A new Head of Sport was in place at Channel Four and he was no huge cricket fan unlike his predecessor. Sky spent the big money to bring the sport in full to them knowing it was the largest potential subscriber base behind football. Sky paid over the odds for it knowing that they would pretty much lose money on most of the deal except for the Ashes.

Sky have kicked on with their coverage and some of their features are extremely good. You won’t find me knocking Sky’s coverage (bar Nick Knight – he’s terrible) but there has been no quantum leap in coverage compared to when Channel Four took over the rights.

Since those days Channel Four stole the World Athletics Championships from the BBC and stunk up the joint so bad that the IAAF quickly gave the Beeb back the rights to the 2015 and 2017 events. However Channel Four got universal praise for their Paralympics coverage and have recently taken all the domestic Horse Racing coverage. They had worked hard on Horse Racing for the best part of a quarter of a century and most people will think their coverage is just as good as the Beeb’s and Clare Balding is even fronting it.

That decision though by the ECB 14 years ago today didn’t just change what channel we watched cricket on but it also signalled the end of the BBC being able to sit firmly on their hands in the belief that they would always get all the live sport they wanted. I know they lost Formula One to ITV two years before but the BBC never really cared about the sport. The cricket was the first time it had truly been stunned for live sport and ever since it has had to work far harder to keep what it has and develop not only the coverage but the sport itself and for that we should be incredibly thankful to Channel Four for.

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  1. Des Elmes Des Elmes

    “The BBC lost cricket coverage to Channel 4 in a move that stunned everyone and in all honesty heralded the end of the BBC being the natural home for many of our top sporting events.”

    With all due respect, the seeds of decline were sown at the end of 1995, when the Corporation lost the rights for the FA Cup and Formula 1 from 1997 onwards.

    “I know they lost Formula One to ITV two years before but the BBC never really cared about the sport.”

    As Rob Steen said, this is not true. ITV’s coverage may have been more innovative (just like Channel 4’s cricket coverage), but the Beeb were more than happy to cover the sport for nearly 20 years, and in the process make Murray Walker an institution and a certain Fleetwood Mac song one of the most memorable theme tunes ever.

    And when they did lose the rights, they were absolutely devastated, as Murray himself reveals:

    “Bernie [Ecclestone] phoned the [BBC’s] head of sport, Jonathan Martin, and said, ‘I am afraid to tell you that you have lost the contract and we are making the announcement in half an hour’s time.’
    When the shell-shocked Jonathan picked himself up off the floor he said, ‘Gosh, Bernie, you might have given us a chance to make a counter-bid.’
    Bernie replied, ‘Unless you have been cheating me all these years, there’s no way you can pay what they’re paying [£65 million], so there was no point in talking to you about it.'”

    Nowadays, of course, F1 is back on the Beeb, and they most definitely *do* care about the sport – even if they have to share the rights with Sky.

  2. ceri nolan ceri nolan

    Cricket belongs on BBC where were channel 4 Where was SKY 70s?

  3. Rob Steen Rob Steen

    I have to take exception with the article on two points.

    Re the BBC coverage, they did in fact keep up with technological advances – the stump camera was incorporated into the BBC coverage. Also, the BBC often followed the lead of Channel 9 Australia. They were the leaders in technological advancements in Cricket, and the BBC often utilised/copied them. This included the camera on the crane, and also the fixed side on camera for run outs/no balls. The BBC also

    Second point, re F1 – if I understand your comment, you are suggesting that the BBC did not care for F1. This is not true. Throughtout the 1970s into 1980s and then the 1990s, the BBC was a leader in the TV coverage, and supported F1 throughtout.

  4. garfield moreton garfield moreton

    Channel 4 were brilliant. Sky do cover cricket very well indeed but no better than channel 4. Any technological improvements are down to the age we live in. If C4 still covered cricket they would have them. I was gutted when cricket was cast aside and sent to pay tv. Never happens to Wimbledon does it? Why should cricket be any different?

  5. Alex Pickard Alex Pickard

    Don’t forget that Channel 4 was still going to the horse racing right up til the end in 2005. The fact is only Sky are willing to provide ball by ball coverage out of all the British broadcasters. I do agree that Channel 4’s coverage was a huge improvement over the BBC’s, which by the end was pretty staid. But I think Sky have made improvements more than you give them credit for. The info bar at the bottom of the screen is brilliant. The red button options never existed on C4. The use of statistics is excellent – not too much, but always adding value.

  6. Hywel Hywel

    Cricket stopped being a free to air sport because the ECB decided to do that.

    Though I think Sky generally has revolutionised both quality and quantity of sports coverage. For cricket it brings live coverage of COunty games and overseas tours and non-England test matches that was simply never there in the past.

    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      I think Sky’s best aspects are clearly their coverage of overseas tours – but they were doing that 15 years before they snapped up all rights. Their coverage of the domestic T20 is without a doubt first rate but as for the couny championship it really is a pointless exercise for TV. Sky Cricket do a great job but for me the quantum leap was done by C4.

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