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Cricket World Cup’s efforts to ‘engage’ doomed by terrestrial TV void

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/06/2019 Andy Bull
Usman Khawaja © Getty Usman Khawaja

Repeat a word often enough and it seems to lose all meaning. It’s called semantic satiation, and it’s a phenomenon you will already be aware of if you have spent much time talking to toddlers or sports marketing executives. “Legacy” went some time in the last decade, buzzworded to death after London 2012, and I suspect we’re about to lose “engage” and its variations, too. The England and Wales Cricket Board says it has “engaged” 1 million children in this World Cup, the International Cricket Council has set up fan zones to “engage” with families, partnered with TikTok and Helo to “engage” with social media users, and signed up with the PR company Ogilvy UK to drive “engagement”, while their many sponsors are anxious to “engage” with all those India fans.

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There are an awful lot of ways to “engage” with this tournament. There are clips, snippets and titbits on the ICC’s app and website, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, the BBC and ESPN Cricinfo; there is Test Match Special’s coverage on the radio, and the 45-minute highlights packages Channel 4 has been putting out in the middle of the night. What you can’t do, unless you pay upwards of £32 a month for Sky TV’s coverage, is “engage” with it by sitting down to watch it live, in its entirety. Which – and forgive me if I’m underplaying the appeal of following cricket exclusively through tweeted gifs of people hitting sixes – seems like a fairly fundamental part of the whole experience.

Because the one thing all these fragments of coverage can’t do – the one thing that only live, mainstream, terrestrial coverage can – is turn a sports tournament into a national event. So while the online cricket community is busy watching clips of Ben Stokes taking that catch, the World Cup is pulling in 500,000 viewers a match while 6.1 million people are getting swept up in the BBC’s coverage of the Women’s World Cup.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Colin Graves, the chairman of the ECB during the opening match of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup between England and South Africa at The Oval in London, Britain May 30, 2019. Stuart C. Wilson/Pool via REUTERS © Reuters Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Colin Graves, the chairman of the ECB during the opening match of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup between England and South Africa at The Oval in London, Britain May 30, 2019. Stuart C. Wilson/Pool via REUTERS

The most engaging stretch of play I saw live in the first week of the tournament was at Trent Bridge last Thursday when West Indies unleashed their three quicks – Oshane Thomas, Andre Russell and Sheldon Cottrell – on the Australia top order of Aaron Finch, David Warner and Usman Khawaja. It was a furious contest, full of fierce, fast, threatening bowling, and I was so giddily excited by it that I felt I had to “engage” with a group of old university friends who are all lapsed cricket fans. I sent them a group text urging them to try to find a way to see this brilliant West Indies team play in these next few weeks.

On the highlights that night, which went out at midnight, the 50‑minute stretch of the game was over in six balls. It’s a bit like trying to listen to music by picking the loudest notes out of an album. You could only really appreciate Khawaja’s dismissal – leaping away to leg in panic and manically hacking at a short, wide ball he could have left alone – if you’d seen the barrage of short deliveries that came before it. Likewise, plenty of people will have seen the clip of the amazing catch Cottrell took later in the match to dismiss Steve Smith, but not the way he had dropped him while fielding in the very same position earlier in the innings.

Highlights aren’t a good substitute for live coverage. They are there for the people who missed the day’s play but want to watch it anyway. Which is likely why Channel 4 feels it can just stick them on at midnight as lead-in for – let’s check tonight’s schedule – My Gay Dog and Other Animals. But during this World Cup, the ECB’s “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, they are all we’ve got on free-to-air TV.

The ECB blames the ICC, because it controls the broadcast rights. Anyone who is at all familiar with how the ICC works might be surprised to find that it has so much autonomy, especially when the chairman of the ECB, Colin Graves, also happens to be chairman of the ICC’s finance and commercial affairs committee, which has power of approval over all the ICC’s broadcast arrangements. The ICC on the other hand, point towards Channel 4, because it arranges its own schedules. But there is a significant caveat to that. The broadcast deal stops the broadcast channel from starting its highlights show within three hours of the end of play, so it is in effect banned from showing the games before the watershed.

As for Channel 4, it has now said that it plans to move the highlights show earlier in the schedule as the tournament goes on: that India v Pakistan will go out at 10.30pm, England v India and the final match at 10pm. Which, like so many of these other opportunities to “engage” with the tournament, you might rightly describe as “better than nothing”. Only “better than nothing” is another way of saying “not good enough”.

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Last month I interviewed Mark Barber, who runs community cricket at Leicestershire County Cricket Club. Barber is one of many men and women out there working in schools and clubs and leisure centres, trying to persuade children to get into cricket. I asked him what he tells the kids who want to watch more of it but whose parents don’t have Sky subscriptions. “‘Go on YouTube,’” Barber explained. “There’s always archive footage or highlights, they’re going to be able to see something.”

It’s better than nothing.

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