No frills, no paywall and Mambo No 5: Test cricket’s lo-fi free-to-air return

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is …” Test cricket, finally back on free-to-air TV at the godawful hour of one, two, 3.35 in the morning. For 15 years, four months, and 22 days now the game has been going back-and-forth about whether or not people ought to be able to watch it live on terrestrial television, and here it was at last – for the first time since the end of the 2005 Ashes. Sky, which has held the rights for most of that time, has done so much for the sport, but those opening notes of Lou Bega’s Mambo No 5 presented an irresistible argument: the world is a better place when there’s live Test cricket on free-to-air TV.

It ought to be enforced by government order, distributed for the common wealth like fluoride in the water, a source of comfort, solace, and distraction for those who love it, and (so long as they stay away from the living room while their partners are watching) peace and quiet for those who don’t. And of course it was once, until 1998 when, after heavy lobbying by the England and Wales Cricket Board, the culture secretary Chris Smith took home Tests off the list of “crown jewel” sports that have to be on terrestrial TV. And the ECB’s lobbying paid off, the money it made from that decision has sustained the game for the past decade.

It also meant that by the middle of the 2010s the board had build up formidable cash reserves (it had £80m spare in 2015) as a contingency against unforeseen catastrophes (catastrophes such as, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic which meant no one was allowed to attend any games). Unfortunately, the board then blew through those very same cash reserves trying to devise a new format of the sport in a desperate attempt to get it back on terrestrial TV, and undo some of the damage done to its participation numbers by that original decision to put the sport behind a paywall. What the game needed, and still needs, is a balance between free-to-air and subscription TV. Which is what it now has.

Turns out Channel 4 was perfectly willing to take a punt on the broadcast rights to England’s series against India even though it’s only Test cricket so doesn’t include any of those delightful new ideas (Fancy new franchises! Five‑ball overs! Tactical time-outs!) all those well-remunerated (and yes, well‑intentioned) marketing men and women have cooked up for the Hundred. Which is odd, because one of the key arguments people have always used against putting the sport back on free‑to‑air is that none of the terrestrial stations want to show it. All of a sudden it was Sky (which the ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, often describes as “cricket’s best friend”) which got cold feet.

Anyway, as it turned out, Channel 4’s broadcast was a pretty good advert for all the good things Sky does. It was an endearingly lo-fi production, no frills, no masterclasses, no touch-screen analysis, or super slow-mo replays. This all happened at such late notice that the broadcaster had only a couple of days to get ready, just long enough to cobble together a set and rope in Sir Alastair Cook and Rishi Persad to fill in the bits between the live feed. And that was it. No sign of Mark Nicholas, much less Monica, Erica, Rita, or Tina, just two tired blokes yakking about cricket in a pair of knackered armchairs.

It was all oddly reminiscent of the way the BBC used to do it back in the old days, which was (funnily enough) the very model Channel 4 was trying to get away from when it took over the job first time around.

Odd thing was, it didn’t matter. The cricket spoke for itself (which was fortunate, because Cook seemed to be so exhausted that he was having a bit of trouble speaking for it). There was something very soothing about the gentle pace of the day’s play, it was a tonic for troubled minds to watch the players toil away on the flat, thankless pitch. Watching Dom Sibley cruise serenely to 87 from 286 balls felt like one of those slow TV shows they have on Scandinavian TV, live footage of a 12-hour barge trip down a backcountry canal. And, of course, they had the theme tune, too, which is the one thing Sky never seems to have been able to nail.

For a certain generation of England fans, Mambo No 5 can’t but conjure images of 2005. “If you use the right song, in the right scene, then the effect is you can never really hear this song again without thinking about that image,” Quentin Tarantino said once. “I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to Stuck in the Middle with You.” Bega, on the other hand, seems genuinely delighted by what Channel 4 did with his one hit (he says he’s still working on Mambo No 6). Or he did when I spoke to him about it in 2015: “I’d say that I’m, like, at least 50% of the reason why England won.”

It wasn’t clear how much of his success Joe Root put down to Bega’s influence, but it was good to think that, in years to come, a new generation might think of Root raising his bat to celebrate his century when they hear the song.

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