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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 07:29 GMT
MPs make free-to-air cricket plea
Andrew Flintoff
Andrew Flintoff was a national hero for his role in winning the Ashes
All England cricket fans should be able to watch the sport for free on television, MPs are arguing.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee said giving exclusive live broadcast rights to BSkyB would make a repeat of last summer's "Ashes fever" impossible.

And it said the sport's governing body had broken a "gentleman's agreement" to keep it on terrestrial TV.

But the England and Wales Cricket Board defended the deal with BSkyB, saying it safeguarded the future of the sport.

The dramatic Ashes victory against Australia last summer, the first since 1987, drew audiences of up to 8.4 million for Channel 4, and millions more following the action on the BBC's radio and internet services.

But Sky then won the rights for the live rights to Test matches until 2009.

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In its report, the committee said there were no "compelling" arguments for cricket to return to the 'A-list' - sports events which are guaranteed free-to-air coverage.

But it demanded that future deals must ensure some free-to-air cricket was available.

The ECB believes it was justified in negotiating the deal with BSkyB and welcomed the committee's judgement that the sport should not return to the 'A-list'.

"ECB thanks the committee for recognising that there is no appetite to return to the 'days when cricket was starved of funds'," said a statement.

"It is encouraging that MPs also noted the potential damage of re-listing in Group A is too great a risk to take and that they wouldn't want to jeopardise the investment in cricket and the achievements of the England team.

"ECB share the committee's wish that the broadcasters will take up the challenge and ensure that future broadcasting income to cricket is maintained and that broadcasters will choose to free up schedules to broadcast both home and away live international cricket."

It's hard to challenge the fact that much of the game's recent success is attributable to the ECB's investment of money from its TV rights
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell

The MPs also criticised the BBC and ITV for failing to bid for the rights - allowing the ECB to justify the subscription-only deal.

In 1998 the then Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, agreed to remove Test cricket from the 'A-list'.

This was, however, reportedly accompanied by a "gentleman's agreement" with ECB chairman Lord MacLaurin that a "substantial proportion" of live Test matches would still be free to all viewers.

The MPs attacked the ECB for breaching that and accused the Department of Culture, Media and Sport of "tacit agreement" in allowing it to happen.

This committee said it felt "profound disappointment" that both had ignored the "wider public interest".

The BBC and ITV blamed scheduling difficulties for their reluctance to bid to show full five-day matches, but there was "no compelling argument" not to try for highlights, it added.

Committee chairman, Conservative MP John Whittingdale, said there was a balance to be struck between income and exposure.

"The cricket board want to maximise the money coming into the spot but they also have to take account of the interest of millions of fans," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

"In the previous deal there was a mix - some live cricket on Sky and the rest on Channel Four - and what we want to see is that mix continue."

I think there will be some pressure now, with a sharing of parts of the main series against Pakistan in the summer
David Brook
Keep Cricket Free campaign

But Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell argued that "once cricket was dropped from the sporting crown jewels list, government had no remit to intervene in a rights issue".

"And it's hard to challenge the fact that much of the game's recent success is attributable to the ECB's investment of money from its TV rights," she said.

"So we have to accept that the ECB was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

"But critics of their decision have to answer one simple question: where else could that money for the grassroots game come from, if not from selling those rights in a competition?"

Last summer's Ashes saw England beat Australia by two Tests to one, with viewers gripped by the exploits of all-rounder Andrew Flintoff and his side.

The committee report said: "Unless a change of attitude by all interested parties is forthcoming, the incomparable Ashes series of 2005 could be the last of its kind."

Former Channel 4 executive David Brook, founder of the Keep Cricket Free campaign, is still holding out hope of a compromise.

He highlighted a call in the report for a round-table discussion with the minister for sport and all involved parties.

"We're now the only country in the world without any cricket on free-to-air TV," he told Five Live.

"I think there will be some pressure now, with a sharing of parts of the main series against Pakistan in the summer.

"Someone would need to come up with some compensation."


SEE ALSO
ECB takes calculated gamble
15 Dec 04 |  Cricket
English cricket's finest summer
22 Sep 05 |  Ashes 2005
Triumphant England reclaim Ashes
12 Sep 05 |  England
Fans hail England's Ashes heroes
13 Sep 05 |  Ashes 2005


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