‘Scared of the big, bad, Brexity world? Then seek shelter in a cricketer’s box’

Stoked up: Ben Stokes celebrates hitting the winning run at Headingley after the 'greatest-ever innings'.  Photograph: Gareth Copley
Stoked up: Ben Stokes celebrates hitting the winning run at Headingley after the 'greatest-ever innings'. Photograph: Gareth Copley
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A t a time of national crisis – indeed at a time when my learned friends in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, going for the top insult of 2019, accuse the Prime Minister of “incontinent mendacity” – the people are seeking comfort in cream cakes and Aussies being gone by tea. By people I’m really talking about England. Scots like The Great British Bake Off and some of them really love cricket but it is our southern friends who, metaphorically at any rate, are diving headlong into sherry-soaked sponges and finding shelter from the big, bad, Brexity world in a batsman’s box.

Actually I’ve no idea if sponges are doused in Harvey’s Bristol Cream anymore, an alcoholic trifle being my father’s showstopping contribution to the Christmas feast. I may not watch Bake Off myself but its appeal is obvious. Regarding cricket, it’s possible I’ll get something wrong in the course of this article so apologies in advance. It wasn’t played at my keelie Scottish state school and the only time I’ve ever been close enough to hear the sound of leather on willow was an office match, Reporters vs Sub-Editors, which ended in confusion when the lowliest ambulance-chaser, now holding a key position with the Scottish Rugby Union, tried so hard to impress his boss that, leaping to a great height during the act of bowling, he drove the ball straight down into the turf, leaving it semi-submerged. But the appeal of the Ashes and the third Test at Headingley was obvious, too. If only people could have seen it.

Some did because they have Sky. Highlights at night on Channel 5 are all very well but cricket fans who can’t afford pay TV would have wanted to thrill to Ben Stokes’ sensational transmutation from nightclub brawler to knighthood contender as it happened, ball-by-bazooka-ed-ball. Even a heathen like me would have wanted to watch that.

The sport has to a great extent been lost to subscription TV. Cricket has not been regularly shown on terrestrial since 2005 when Freddie Flintoff, pictured inset, was England’s Ashes hero, celebrating with a 32-hour bender and a pee in the Downing Street rose garden. Of course Sky has pumped money into the game, as it always does when getting its hands on a new sport, but this has to be offset against a reduced profile.

This seems particularly wounding in the case of cricket compared with, say, golf, which doesn’t occupy the same place in the tapestry of English life. In coverage of the fourth Test at Old Trafford, as Australia’s brilliant batsman Steve Smith prepared to rack up his double-century, the cameras panned over the stands from Flintoff to a couple of old boys in blazers in the crowd, officials of Lancashire Cricket Club which, we were told, had just emerged from severe financial difficulties.

Sky’s money helps keep the first-class clubs going and maybe ordinarily the English Cricket Board can persuade themselves that a lowered profile is just about a price worth paying. But these are extraordinary times. First the Cricket World Cup, won by England in a manner ripped from the final strip of a comic book, and then the biffing, Boys’ Own greatest-ever innings from Stokes. How many kids were able to see the latter and were inspired to pick up a bat and pick up a sport, currently slumped at eighth in the list of English schools’ most-popular, behind even netball and basketball?

Sky’s coverage of cricket is like its coverage of everything: it hits you with noise but then says little. Multi-mic sound-effects make you think the ball is whistling through your sitting-room at 90mph-plus but the commentaries lack character. This is particularly galling when the sport is cricket because even a silly midoffer like me knows that the old BBC crews, TV and radio, had character coming out of their furry ears.

It’s plainly nonsense to say that everyone has access to Sky now. I still know more people who don’t rather than do. Under severe pressure, Sky made the final of the World Cup available for all to watch. I was covering the men’s singles final at Wimbledon that day and incredibly both the cricket and the tennis reached their almost impossibly thrilling climaxes at exactly the same moment. On the press benches, all the English tennis correspondents were glued to the cricket on their laptops, probably wishing that without home interest in their sport, they were reporting on England beating New Zealand. The rest of the country acclaimed Stokes, not knowing he had an even greater feat in him. Sky didn’t make Headingley free-to-view, not knowing what was going to happen but possibly thinking that once for that gesture was enough. Having splashed their millions you can hardly blame them.

Imagine if Scotland were to beat Belgium tomorrow night. Imagine – to pluck a name at random from the less than rarefied air around the national team right now – that Oli McBurnie was to be the hat-trick hero who laid waste to the Fifa-ranked best side in the world. There would be the same frantic calls for everyone to have been allowed to share in the glorious moment which were heard last month in England.

Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain last week, in conversation with Jeffrey Archer who he of course called Jofra, opined that the Stokes miracle innings had “saved” Test cricket – but for who? If there is to be any more crazy brilliance from England’s new sporting hero and it’s missed by the majority, then you will really have to feel for our neighbours over the Border. The decent people of England would deserve the blessed relief that would bring from Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Jacob Rees-Bloody-Mogg.

Could I become a convert? If I can get into jazz – and it seems that I can – then surely I can get into cricket. Countless summer holidays in the Mearns were spent watching cricket in snowy black-and-white because it was the only sport available. Gary Sobers’ six sixes was a gripping goggle-box moment on a par with Moonshots and the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy. I’ll defend any sport, however odd, against “trendy” makeovers and share the anxiety about The Hundred, a mutant, Sky-funded spin-off described by horrified traditionalists as “a cross between rounders and It’s a Knockout”.

That’s just not cricket.