James Fitzgerald, Irish Times
As the countdown to the Ashes series in Australia at the end of the year continues, England's summer of cricket is now in full swing. Test series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan may not inspire the same obsession among the cricket-loving public across the Irish Sea as a good old scrap with the Aussies but it is significant that following on from last summer's epic Ashes battle the first three days of all the remaining Test matches in England this year have already been sold out.
But for those of us watching at home, the thrills of Muttiah Muralitharan bowling to Kevin Pietersen or Andrew Flintoff smashing the leather to all parts have been tempered by the fact that we now have to watch it all on pay TV.
For professional reasons of course, I am a long-time subscriber to Sky Sports, although I do often end up watching the likes of Celebrity Poker or Aerobics: Oz Style, which has questionable benefits to the quality of this column, I will admit.
And although Sky, with their upbeat music and colourful graphics, have the uncanny knack of making a game of Texas Hold ‘Em between two professional snooker players interesting, they just haven't managed the same for cricket.
Last year, Channel 4 attracted record viewing audiences to its world-class coverage of the Ashes. The best commentators with the best technology and most insightful analysis of any TV network in world cricket were there to record perhaps the best cricket series of the modern era. And with Lou Bega's ‘Mambo Number 5', they even had the best signature tune since Booker T and the MGs' 1968 classic ‘Soul Limbo' was adopted by the BBC. I fear that in future we will look back on those days as the golden era of televised cricket because in a few short months the standard has already fallen.
In an exclusive domestic cricket deal, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) sold out to BskyB for stg£220 million (320 million euros). The peerless Mark Nicholas and Richie Benaud have been replaced by the buffoonery of Ian Botham and bumbling of David Lloyd in a commentary team that spends more time laughing at each other than adding meaningfully to the cricket being played out in front of them. The wonderful work of the Channel 4 Analyst Simon Hughes has been replaced by the contrived observations of Nasser Hussain and even Lou Bega has been substituted in favour of a painful rehash of 10cc's hackneyed Dreadlock Holiday ('I don't like cricket, I love it').
In a barrage of whooshing graphics and hyperbole it is difficult not to compare Sky to Channel 4. And it doesn't compare favourably.
But this is a far more serious situation than merely my penchant for insight and originality rather than vacuous razzmatazz and Beefy slagging David Gower for being posh.
I was talking to a stalwart of Coleraine Cricket Club yesterday and he told me that as a result of watching the Ashes last year on television, at the start of this season a large number of youngsters who had never played the game before turned up at the club to give it a go. He said the same about several other clubs across the North and it's also true for clubs in the rest of the country.
But now that cricket has moved to pay television it is estimated that the number of viewers across Britain and Ireland has been more than halved and as a consequence, the good evangelistic work achieved by the 2005 season is in danger of being lost. The ECB was handed a unique opportunity by last year's wonderful series but rather than building on that, they have opted for a quick pay day. And as youngsters drift away, lured by the soccer World Cup, Wimbledon tennis, hurling championship or whatever the glamour sport is this summer, the future of cricket in both England and Ireland will be damaged.