India series on free-to-air channel in England a boost for Test Cricket

For the first time since the 2005 Ashes, England Test cricket returns to Channel 4. On Wednesday, the free-to-air terrestrial channel confirmed that it had secured the rights for the four-match series between India and England from Star Sports.

What is the history of cricket broadcast in England?

The BBC covered all England home games for 60 years until 1999, when they lost the rights to Channel 4. The matches were on free-to-air television till England’s Ashes win over Australia in 2005 before all international cricket broadcast in the UK moved to Comcast’s pay-TV operator Sky.

While before anyone with television could see England’s home games, the move to Sky made a subscription necessary.

Sky did share the rights with Channel 4 in a one-off deal for the 2019 World Cup final between England and New Zealand — and the hosts’ thrilling Super Over win over New Zealand at Lord’s attracted 15.4 million viewers over the course of the day.

What is the new deal?

According to the deal, all four Test matches along with highlights will be available for free on Channel 4, as well as its dedicated streaming platform: All 4.

Channel 4 will get the Star Sports’ live world feed commentary from India. An in-house, London-based panel of former England captains Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss will provide the expert analysis, along with presenter Rishi Persad

“We’re delighted to be showing live Test cricket on Channel 4 again and given the recent performances of both sides this series is set to be a cracker,” Channel 4’s head of sport Pete Andrews told Variety. “We’re thrilled to have struck this deal with Star Sports.”

The UK radio rights, meanwhile have gone to TalkSport, and the BBC Test Match Special team will opt for the ‘Cricket Social’ format of online discussion instead of ball-by-ball commentary by pundits.

How did Channel 4 pip Sky Sports and BT Sport?

Citing sources in India, The Times reported that Channel 4 may have paid as little as £5 million to Star Sports, which had initially been seeking more than £20 million for both the Test and limited-overs UK rights. Sky and BT Sport may have had to pay more due to a smaller potential audience than Channel 4. While the Test deal has been finalised, Star Sports might look for a more lucrative deal for the limited-overs matches.

Sky and BT Sport have also been in cost-cutting mode since the Covid- 19 pandemic hit, and are expected to battle it out for the Premier League football rights later this year.

The early-morning start also adds a wrinkle. The matches will begin at 4am England time, except for the third Test — a day-night match with a 9am start.

What has been the response?

England captain Joe Root hoped Test cricket’s return to terrestrial television will “inspire the next generation.”

“You look at the stuff Sky do and the reach they get, they do a wonderful job and they give great content for all the viewers. [But] this is a great opportunity to reach out to a new audience, to grow the game as we keep talking about and for it to be more accessible for everyone else,” Root told the Guardian. “So it’s a great thing for the sport and hopefully people will tune in and watch us and have something to smile about at the end of it.”

Jonathan Trott, England’s batting consultant in India who played all his 52 Tests career behind Sky’s paywall, called the development “exciting.”

“I think the more people we can get watching the game is a great idea and fantastic for the sport,” Trott told The Times. “I’m sure it’s going to be exciting for everybody. For people in lockdown, hopefully they can watch it and we can get the nation behind the side and give a little bit back in what is quite a testing time all around the world.”

For the Telegraph, historian Simon Heffer wrote: “Perhaps teenagers won’t flood back to county grounds this summer after watching India play England on free-to-air television: but it will spark the imagination of some. If a way can be found to keep showing serious cricket on free-to-air channels, it will remind the young generation that it is there.”