The prospect is, for now, no bigger than a baby's hand but there's an outside chance that Test cricket might just return to terrestrial TV screens next summer. Interesting times lie ahead.
Next week, a Labour MP John Grogan will table an Early Day Motion when the House of Commons returns, calling on the restoration of England?s Test Matches every summer to free-to-air television. Another Labour MP, Stockton South?s Dari Taylor is to raise the issue with the Sports Minister Richard Caborn next time he is due to take questions in the House.
Significantly, Ms Taylor is very New Labour, a ?Blair Babe? if ever there was one, resolutely on-message to do her Prime Minister?s bidding. Usually.
But she has written thus to a constituent: ?I feel thoroughly naffed off and I will certainly be making my views on this issue very clear to the Sports Minister.?
Now in the areas of backbench rebellion, there are more important matters to concern MPs. Iraq for one. But when loyal New Labour MPs start to fulminate about something that is bound to garner public support, then a Prime Minister conscious of newspaper headlines will surely take notice.
After all, he suddenly revealed an interest in cricket three weeks ago when the victorious England cricketers found themselves wondering what was in the 10 Downing Street fridge that was worth drinking. That was a photo opportunity Mr Blair was not going to pass up.
Opposition to the deal that gave Sky Sports exclusive Test cricket for England?s games is growing. I banged on about it for three successive weeks in my Post column last December ? first warning about the dismaying prospect, then bemoaning the ?fait accompli?.
I am happy to declare an interest in favour of free-to-air broadcasting, as you?d expect from a BBC employee, but the disenchantment over the new contract runs far deeper than among zealots like myself.
Three weeks ago, a website called KeepcricketFree.com was launched. The aim is to lobby MPs to pressurise the Government to restore home Test Matches to the protected status of sports ? called the Crown Jewels ? which are only allowed to be shown on terrestrial TV.
In other words, ensuring that the whole country can watch the Olympics, the FA Cup Final and the Grand National without paying for anything extra like a satellite dish and a subscription.
That campaign has already gathered 11,000 supporters, and 4,000 of them have emailed the Department of Culture, Media and Sport with their hostility to the Sky deal. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State, says she can?t intervene to scupper it, but I wonder if she?s aware of certain precedents involving other countries.
On the eve of the Ashes battle, the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard discovered that neither ABC or Channel 9 were going to bid for the TV coverage, because it was deemed too expensive and anyway, the Aussies were going to win again, so what?s the public interest in that?
Howard intervened, insisting the cricket should be on free-to-air and the minority channel SBS got the gig. Their viewing figures went through the roof as a grateful Australian nation rejoiced that their Prime Minister at least understood the importance of the Ashes. Howard says that?ll remain the case as long as he?s in charge.
Bertie Aherne did the same in the Republic of Ireland two years ago. There was a massive public outcry when the Football Association of Ireland signed a contract with Sky for exclusive coverage of all home matches.
After one international that deal was torn up on the Government?s instructions. Now all Irish home games are on terrestrial TV.
So there is a precedent for a Sky contract to be overturned. The Government isn?t bound by that contract between Sky and the England and Wales Cricket Board and if Tessa Jowell and Tony Blair see fit, they can restore Test cricket in this country to ?Crown Jewels? status and get the major broadcasters around the negotiating table to thrash out a compromise.
Even if terrestrial TV got some, rather than all, of the Tests it would be worthwhile.
And those who berated the BBC for not bidding ought to know that the Beeb?s senior negotiators had 15 separate meetings last year with the ECB in an attempt to broker an arrangement whereby the Tests wouldn?t clash with the football World Cup, Wimbledon and the Open Golf.
The ECB wouldn?t compromise on the schedules, even though they did so last summer, getting the ridiculous amount of one-day internationals out of the way early enough for Sky to concentrate fully on the football season in August.
The major stumbling block to a compromise is Tony Blair?s close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, the majority shareholder of BSkyB. The Prime Minister needs the support of Murdoch in his national newspapers, as he ponders grasping the nettle of the euro.
Murdoch is an implacable opponent of the euro, Blair is pragmatic. And Murdoch would not take kindly to Government intervention into the ECB deal, even though he is a pastmaster at leaning on governments.
Tony Blair ought to consider the wider interests of this sports-mad country, rather than an Australian billionaire who changed to US citizenship for purely business reasons.
Blair?s advisers will surely have apprised him of the fantastic interest generated by the Ashes contest this last summer. He is never one to ignore the ?feelgood factor?, nor jumping on a bandwagon if it suits his interests. How could we ever forget all that Cool Britannia drivel in his first term?
Some facts might influence him. The ECB has made much of the fact that the day?s highlights will be on terrestrial TV. But Channel Five, the nominated network, is only available in around 80 per cent of the country.
Vast areas of the south of England can only receive Five on digital TV, and that will remain a minority option until the analogue service starts to be switched off until 2010 onwards. Many viewers with portable sets receive a poor or non-existent signal on Five. So where?s the universality in putting the highlights on Five?
The world of advertising is dismayed at cricket going on Sky. Last summer just under 30 million watched twenty days of Ashes cricket, that?s 55.8 per cent of ABC1 adults, the group all advertisers try to reach, because they have greater disposable income.
In contrast, Sky?s coverage of the England v Australia one- day internationals reached around two million viewers in total and just 12.8 per cent of ABC1 adults. It was estimated that in marketing terms Sky?s coverage was valued at #1.4 million and Channel 4?s at #40 million.
Here?s another damning statistic. On the final day of the 2004 Lord?s Test against New Zealand, 85,000 watched on Sky and just over a million on Channel 4. Throughout every day of that Test, there was a gap of more than half a million viewers between the channels. And the main sponsors associated with Test cricket in England are aware of this.
Vodafone, who bankroll the England team, and the Test series sponsors npower are aware that their target audience will be drastically reduced by their product not getting terrestrial exposure. Money from perimeter advertising at the Test grounds will also be substantially reduced because the TV audience is much smaller.
The ECB says that the Sky contract will bring in an extra #24 million a year into the game, but some of that will be needed to offset the smaller contracts that the main sponsors will offer.
The ECB chairman David Morgan says that investment in grassroots cricket will rise from 16 per cent to 21 per cent over the next five years, but that doesn?t sound a fat lot when you consider there are 8,000 cricket clubs in the UK who will be looking for more money.
I?m sure a great deal of that extra dosh will go towards ensuring the England coach Duncan Fletcher gets more players on expensive central contracts, and on expanding his back-up team while the counties who voted for the Sky deal spend even more on short-term contracts with star overseas players and Kolpak signings.
Don?t expect the counties suddenly to get interested in developing homegrown talent. The quick fix with a big name invariably holds more attraction to administrators who lack vision.
Andrew Flintoff unwittingly put his finger on it when he was interviewed on Channel 4 after he was named the Man of the Series at the Oval three weeks ago. He said ?I watched Test cricket as a kid and never dreamed I?d be in this situation?.
Flintoff unashamedly admits to his humble background, where money was tight. The sort of family home that couldn?t afford a satellite dish today.
How many Flintoffs of the future will be lost to cricket because the TV coverage is too expensive? It?s not too late for the PM to realise that home Test Matches deserve more than ghetto broadcasting.
Rio has class to prosper
Sven-Goran Eriksson will have to cast aside his cloak of inertia this week and finally make an important decision about the central defence for the World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Poland.
Three into two won?t go, Sven, so you?ve got to risk unpopularity for once. I believe he should keep faith with Rio Ferdinand. Now Ferdinand is an acknowledged airhead in his private life and we?ve all had fun at his expense in the last couple of years. And he?s not playing well for Manchester United.
There?s a case for going on form, with Sol Campbell partnering John Terry. But of the three defenders, I think Ferdinand is the classiest and as such, has the greater claims for international football. Terry and Campbell are too similar, loving the muck and nettles commitment of English club football, relishing the aerial combat involved.
But in international games, a strapping centre- half doesn?t get much chance to head the ball away because the opposition try to play it around him on the deck. So the familiar domestic virtues are less relevant.
Neither Terry or Campbell are as good at distributing the ball as Ferdinand, they both lack that extra yard of pace while Ferdinand is a fluent mover, who glides confidently out of defence.
You need contrasts in a successful defensive pairing and that?s why Ferdinand must play alongside a stopper. Given that Terry is in great form and Campbell is just coming back after injury, I?d go for the Chelsea captain to partner Ferdinand.
And if Ferdinand does keep his place, stand by for a media outcry that has its roots in bias against Manchester United, rather than the respective merits of the three players.
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Art of the graceful departure
It?s not often a footballer emerges with credit from a sending-off, but Birmingham?s Kenny Cunningham managed on Sunday.
Last defender in line, Cunningham was fractionally late in the tackle and had to go. He knows the latest rules give referees hardly any latitude, and he didn?t make a fuss. He behaved like the batsman who knows he?s nicked it to the keeper, walking off without waiting for the decision.
Afterwards Cunningham was his usual honest and cooperative self to the media, agreeing that in hindsight it was a poor tackle and that perhaps he should have stayed on his feet. Other players please note ? how many times do they have to be dragged off the pitch when getting the red card, berating the referee and any other officials he can locate?
And believe me, not many players are mature enough to discuss the merits of his dismissal as Cunningham did, without launching into a tirade against officialdom.
I wish there were more around like Kenny Cunningham. Hard players who give and take the knocks in the same uncomplaining manner, acting like grown-up adults when the fates conspire against them.
Read previous Pat Murphy columns at www.icbirmingham.co.uk/post/murphy