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DANIEL GALLAN: Why cricket suffers when stuck behind a paywall

“So, what do you do?” Geoff, my Uber driver, asks me as we approach Paddington Station in central London.

“I’m a journalist covering the World Cup.”

“Oh right, that’s brilliant. It’s been incredible so far. I wasn’t always a fan, but the whole family watched England play the other day and now I’m on board for the rest of the tournament. So, you off to Paris then?”

Geoff, a greying man in his fifties, has been watching a different World Cup with his wife and two young daughters. While cricket’s showpiece has been dodging raindrops and fighting for relevancy since the end of May, the Fifa Women’s World Cup has been unfolding for just under a week across the Channel.

One conversation in an Uber hardly constitutes extensive research, but it does provide a microcosm of the power of free-to-air television and the impact it can have on wider discourse.

Over 4.6 million people joined Geoff in watching England’s Lionesses beat Scotland 2-1 on Sunday thanks to the game being made available for free on the BBC. By comparison, England’s cricketers have pulled an average of 550,000 viewers per game in a competition they have a great chance of winning on home soil.

Since the 2005 Ashes between England and Australia, arguably the greatest ever Test series, cricket has been kept locked away behind a paywall. Before Sky Sport’s monopolisation of Britain’s spiritual summer sport, high-profile national fixtures reached peak audiences of more than 8 million.

Cricket has never been a game of the people. Sadly, this may never change. No matter how many format alterations are thought up or catchy hashtag campaigns are launched on social media, the game’s length, preoccupation with the past and emphasis on resources will forever confine it to a pastime of the privileged.

Even in India and Australia, where cricket is seen as a force of social and national cohesion, those with access to better coaching and facilities are usually the ones who progress through the system. And no matter how many players from the working class or lower castes do break through the glass ceiling, the bourgeoisie more often than not dominate the conversation in newspapers, radio and TV studios.

Against such a disheartening backdrop, you might assume that cricket’s decision makers around the globe would do everything in their power to bring the likes of Jofra Archer, Virat Kohli and Kagiso Rabada to the living rooms of families who cannot afford terrestrial broadcast packages. Guess again.

In the UK, legal restrictions have kept Channel 4’s highlights packages of the Cricket World Cup to a minimum, with the odd snippet broadcast past midnight and as late as 1am. In South Africa, the SABC’s continued woes were compounded when it was announced that the Proteas’ defeat to Bangladesh on 2 June would be the last live match available to fans without access to Dstv.

Cynical cricket fans might view that as a blessing in disguise given the side’s recent form. But with the end of an era looming as the likes of Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Imran Tahir and Faf du Plessis (not to mention the already departed Dale Steyn) are on the verge of retirement, it is a great shame that young supporters will be denied the chance to bid adieu to these legends of the game.

Social media has brought fans closer to the action than ever before, but there is no comparison with a live broadcast. The thrill of watching a game-changing moment play out in real time allows the viewer to feel like they are a part of history. A replay on Twitter or a highlights package on Facebook, no matter how slickly presented, is a poor substitute.

This World Cup will serve as a referendum on the 50-over format. T20 cricket is an objectively more exciting product given its proliferation of sixes and the sense that every ball is an event. As long as a bowler delivers a ball to a batter at the other end of a pitch, Test cricket will remain the pinnacle of the sport and is not going anywhere despite ubiquitous declarations of its demise. Throw in a mix of 10-over matches and the impending ‘100’ competition set for launch in England next year and the market starts to look overcrowded.

With so much riding on this event, it is telling that the same old mistakes are being made with regards to access to the game. And though one conversation in an Uber is hardly definitive, it is telling that one sports fan knows more about a World Cup in a foreign land than one on his doorstep.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan

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