A welcome return: free-to-air Test cricket makes a comeback for India series

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In a move that will no doubt prompt a good deal of 2005-induced nostalgia, Channel 4 have won the rights to broadcast England’s Test encounter with India. It will be the first time Test cricket has graced terrestrial TV since that historic Ashes victory sixteen years ago.

It’s a welcome move for several reasons. Firstly, it opens up what is no doubt going to be a thrilling series to a much wider audience than usual. Of major significance is the fact it is a Test series too. With many people not having a great deal to do, Channel 4 must hope that what makes Test cricket so unique – its ebbs and flows, the way it brings out the character of the players, the possibility of multiple results for much of the match – can attract new fans. Crucially, the possibility of being exposed to Test cricket might draw limited overs enthusiasts to the longer form of the game too.

Channel 4’s acquisition of the series has also reignited discussion about English cricket’s visibility problem. Club cricket has been in decline ever since the professional game disappeared behind a paywall. There are plenty of worrying statistics: the number of registered club cricketers dropped by 150, 000 between 2008 and 2016, while the ECB has reported that around 40% of junior cricketers drop out of the game by the time they are 19.

However, rather like KP in the aftermath of the 2013-14 Ashes, Sky’s monopoly on English cricket has taken too much blame for an overall decline. There are numerous other reasons for the decline in cricket’s popularity. Greater demands on people’s time, the lack of sport in schools, the selling-off of playing fields in schools, a general lack of resources in the youth game, to name but a few. Undoubtedly, not having cricket on the TV has contributed to cricket’s decline, but it is one of many problems, not the problem.

There are steps in a better direction. The BBC showed some international games last summer. They are set to do so in the future, as well as screening a number of matches in the much-maligned Hundred. Meanwhile Ben Stokes’ heroics in the 2019 World Cup final played out on Channel 4 to millions. There is a growing awareness and understanding that cricket can no longer wither away. A greater desire to combat the problems listed above is developing within the ECB – the Hundred (love it or hate it) is the biggest sign of that. There is certainly cause for optimism.

Channel 4’s acquisition of the series has reignited discussion about cricket’s visibility problem.

Whether quite as much optimism can be applied to England’s prospects in India is somewhat up for debate. England undoubtedly have the makings of a solid Test side, and much greater faith can be placed in the current touring party than the outfit that toured back in 2016/17. Even if the series is not a firecracker, it certainly promises to be a bit spicy.

India’s pace resurgence may well benefit England. The accomplishments of Jaspit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and India’s other pacemen could well result in pitches which bring quick bowling into the game to a greater extent than is usual in India. With Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes returning to the fold, alongside Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – who were both excellent in Sri Lanka – England look just as well stocked in the seam department as India too.

Whether the same can be said for England’s batting and spin bowling is a trickier issue. There are not enough superlatives to sum up how well Joe Root batted in Sri Lanka, and if England are to compete in India, then the skipper needs his form and control to continue. The men around him should spend plenty of time watching Root in the nets, because he is a masterful player of spin. While India are missing Ravi Jadeja, they still have the likes of Ravi Ashwin in their lineup. The likes of Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Rory Burns – who has not played a Test since last summer – will be seriously put to the Test.

Meanwhile, Stokes’ return to the middle order will be welcomed. Along with Dan Lawrence – who will keep his place unless Ollie Pope returns to fitness – he is a fine player of spin. However, all the English batsmen face the extra pressure of India’s pace attack, notably Bumrah. The idiosyncratic seamer has 79 wickets in just 17 tests at an average of 21. Pivotal to England’s success will be whether their batsman can repel him.

Also pivotal is how England’s spinners fare. India possess a batting lineup with the quality, and the depth, of their bowling attack. Jack Leach, Dom Bess, and Moeen Ali – when he inevitably makes a welcome return – will have to be right on their line and lengths from the very beginning, keeping the Indian batsman under pressure. Leach and Ali certainly have the ability to do so.

England undoubtedly have the potential to compete with India. Their current squad is far more inspiring than the one that last toured the subcontinent. The question is whether that potential can be unlocked. If it can, then the hours sat in front of Channel 4 will pass very quickly. If they don’t, then they could feel very long indeed.

Image: Srini G via Creative Commons

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