There has been a buzz around the England camp as well as a sense of puzzlement. They are in the semi-finals; they are playing well, though not flawlessly. Two victories over India and New Zealand, both easier than expected, have boosted confidence and clarified what they believe to be their best team in most conditions. Now they are kicking their heels until their semi-final at Edgbaston comes around on Thursday. It will be a long wait, though Jason Roy and Jofra Archer may welcome an opportunity to rest aching bodies.
And the puzzlement? Well, like everyone else, the players have been transfixed by England’s women footballers in France, who prompted 11.7 million television viewers to watch their semi-final against USA. Ellen White is now a more recognisable figure than Joe Root or Jos Buttler. England’s endearing bunch of cricketers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, would not be human if they did not feel some bemusement – and a little resentment – that with a possible World Cup triumph of their own around the corner such a huge chunk of the country has no idea who they are and how they play.
Wherever cricket is played in other parts of the globe they have a better idea of what is going on in the World Cup. It has been enlightening to hear the astonishment of visiting journalists that they cannot find TV coverage of World Cup matches which they are not attending – the radio coverage has been comprehensive, but that does not satisfy everyone. They are aghast that a home World Cup should be so hidden away. Every other World Cup in this country has been available to all. Up in Durham my taxi driver could give me chapter and verse on the Rafa Benítez resignation, which was eventually followed by a polite inquiry about my visit to the north: “What cricket is that, then?”
On Friday Sky Sports announced the World Cup final would be available to all if England are playing at Lord’s on 14 July. For which we are all extremely grateful. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to also offer thanks to Liam Plunkett, who, a day before Sky’s announcement, said: “Playing for England, you’re the pride of the country and you want people to be able to watch that. I’m not sure it’s going to happen but for the guys you want as many people to watch as possible.” Nonetheless, it was a view universally applauded – almost.
Later Plunkett took to Twitter with what might euphemistically be described as a “clarification”. “Skycricket are an incredible partner for the game and have been for the past 20+ years. I was asked a question & I never said that it should be on FTA. My words have been twisted & the headline is misleading.”
He need not have bothered to do that. His was an innocent, perfectly understandable expression of what the dressing room must be feeling. But Sky can be extraordinarily prickly on this subject and so can the England and Wales Cricket Board.
Plunkett was right on many counts: the bigger the audience for England cricket the better for everyone and Sky is an incredible partner. Its TV coverage is excellent, arguably the best in the world, and Sky pays an awful lot of money for it. Sky is not to blame for no live FTA coverage of serious cricket on television and does not need to be so defensive about that.
That responsibility lies with the ECB. It decides these things. It has tacitly recognised the mistakes of 2004, when the decision to remove all live cricket from free-to-air television was taken, by embarking on a preposterous, risky new domestic format in 2020 with new teams with silly names in a competition that alienates many existing fans as well as great swathes of the country beyond seven urban centres. It is a reckless gamble, which might or might not work.
More certainly, the wider public will be thankful for a fleeting, albeit infuriating, glimpse of England’s best cricketers if they manage to make the final of a competition that has been captivating for those able to follow it on a regular basis.
The 50-over format, with its scope for matches to ebb and flow, has attracted large crowds and some scintillating cricket. It is a pity – and something of a mystery given the need to prepare for another World Cup in 2023 – that it has been downgraded to “developmental” status in domestic cricket by the ECB in 2020.
Our most promising young players may never play another game of 50-over cricket again unless they are selected for England. So this World Cup must represent the best chance for the national side to win a trophy that has eluded them since its inception in 1975. It is just as well that an enhanced audience might be able to witness it.