BT and Sky battle to keep England’s Ashes Unnameables anonymous | Marina Hyde

Joe Root is light years away from the visibility David Gower enjoyed and, away from terrestrial TV, some team-mates in Australia might as well be in a witness protection programme

At the risk of making myself a hostage to fortune, it is very possible that Australia has already delivered its most withering put-down of England before an Ashes ball has even been bowled. I may come to regret this rash statement when this year’s exquisite causal link between someone’s girth, someone else’s wife, and some form of baked goods is made. But given how much of modern journalism seems to be about “calling” things in the comical belief that functioning as Earth’s wrongest bookmaker makes one relevant, let’s give it a whirl: to read that the Australian media have branded England’s Ashes squad the Unnameables is to experience the sting of the sledge that really lands.

Who are ya? Who are we? It goes without saying that the captain, Joe Root, is light years away in visibility from past players such as David Gower – that level of English cricketing celebrity is a lost world. Even Jimmy Anderson is a throwback to a time of greater recognition, just a few years ago, after which the progression to comparative anonymity has been steady.

Most of the other members of England’s squad enjoy the sort of obscurity you’d expect from one of the better witness protection programmes. No one could accuse them of being household names. Even the absentee Ben Stokes – accused of something else, and awaiting resolution on that front – isn’t one. The days of people other than the deeply committed knowing every player are gone – which means that the days of children ever becoming deeply committed are imperilled. Last weekend the BBC website ran a quiz asking people if they recognised various members of Australia’s squad; they might have had similar results if they’d tried the same with England’s.

This rather sad state of affairs (sad to me, at any rate) is worsening. A few weeks ago in these pages, the great Matthew Engel asked of Britain: “When did you last see a group of children (public schools and Asian community partially excepted) playing cricket without an adult?” For all its big bucks and Big Bashes and so on, he went on, cricket was becoming something entirely different. “This is a world in which it is becoming possible to make millions from playing without getting more than a cursory mention in Wisden.”

It certainly is – and I certainly don’t begrudge them their millions. Nor is there anything absolutely wrong with different, if you get the chance to watch it. But fewer do. Cricket is becoming one of those lines of work in which it is possible for a select few to make huge sums without becoming anything like a household name. Nothing wrong with that, either, perhaps – there are plenty other businesses of this sort. Software design, for instance, or banking. Even so, perhaps there is a lingering sense that international cricket was something paid rather more adoring attention to than the to-ings and fro-ings on the euro swaps desk at Goldman Sachs.

Few have worked harder to achieve English cricket’s state of moneyed, paywalled seclusion than the former Aussie Rupert Murdoch, whose vast offer to take Test matches off terrestrial TV saw the England and Wales Cricket Board succumb to what Channel 4’s then chief executive called “pure greed”. More than a decade on, countless children have grown up without the chance to sample it that they might otherwise have had.

Still: enter BT Sport. If you are one of those people who imagined that the regulator was doing a helpful thing making BT and Sky split the football, you will by now have realised that in fact it just cost you more (if, indeed, you are part of the small minority who can afford to pay twice). Those who enjoyed being had in this way as far as football was concerned now have the option to be done over again on the cricket.

Will you be watching the Ashes? This, of course, is the briefest possible way of asking the longer, real question, which is: do you have BT Sport? If not, you can get it if you have BT TV, though you have to get BT broadband too. If you have Sky TV you can get it, though it’s less expensive if you get BT broadband. Do you have Sky? You are welcome to have just Sky, of course, but what BT is in effect doing with its various insistences on 12-month contracts and activation fees and so on is punishing those that do, and attempting to get them to switch their broadband back to BT. Incidentally, you may already know the rights that have been bought by BT Sport from Cricket Australia are actually to all Australian internationals, which includes the Ashes. So yes, plenty of Australian cricket for BT Sport subscribers. England’s home internationals can be watched on Sky. Unfathomable, isn’t it, that increasing numbers of people are deciding to give up trying to do the right thing and simply pirate it instead?

If all this is making your head hurt as much as your overdraft, it’s inevitably getting worse across all sports. The next Premier League rights auction is about to start and there are rumours that Amazon or Facebook may bid for one of the rights packs of between 20 and 24 games. (Amazon recently landed exclusive rights to ATP tennis and the US Open, while Facebook was an unsuccessful bidder to livestream IPL games.) If not this time, then next. And then what? We already know subscription costs won’t go down just because your provider can now offer fewer games or events. As a wise man on these matters put it to me: “Digital means more for less – unless you’re a sports fan, in which case it means less for more.”

Behold, the magic of cricket. Or perhaps, like many I have heard from in the buildup to this Ashes, you have regretfully concluded that you won’t be beholding it after all.


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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