Back in the good old days, there were certain national events that were regarded as the Crown Jewels of British life and guaranteed to appear on free to air TV. Amongst those used to be all England's home Test Matches. Then, a few years ago, there were claims that the then chairman of the ECB, Lord McLaurin, had come to a gentleman's agreement with the Secretary of State for Culcha, Meeja and Sport, Chris Smith, whereby they were removed from the restricted list, but the ECB promised to keep most of them on free-to-air.
Fast forward to 2005 and England is now engaged in the most hotly contested Ashes series in a generation. Across the country, people who have never even thought about the game are taking an interest in cricket. Over 7 million people watched the last overs of the Old Trafford Test - comparable with the Big Brother audience. 20,000 people threw a sickie to get to Manchester to watch the last over (with as many outside still trying to get in). Cricket has never been this popular - on the day the Premier League restarted, the sports pages were dominated by the rampant lion of England. Football barely got a look in that week, but the Oval Test in a few weeks will be the last time we see live Test cricket on our terrestrial screens.
It is a mantra at the ECB that Test Cricket is the shop window for cricket in this country, so I can't understand why they've decided to draw the curtains over that window and only allow access to those who wish to pay out an extra £200-£300 a year to Rupert Murdoch. For an organisation committed to developing cricket from the roots up, they've blown it for a few extra million a year.
They speak lovingly of the highlights package that will be offered on Five every evening, but this will be up against Coronation Street and Eastenders, even if you are lucky enough to be able to receive it. Cricket isn't like football, which is over in 90 minutes - these games have taken five days to develop. All the viewers will see is the wickets and the big hits - they won't see the skill of a bowler probing a new batsman (watch Warne do it for a masterclass as he walks the ball across the pitch to maximise the batsman's discomfort), nor will they see the well-timed leaves or the snatched single. The ECB are a couple of million richer, but the long term future of the game is weaker and that makes us all poorer.