England’s Test team will return to free-to-air terrestrial television for the first time since the 2005 Ashes after Channel 4 wrapped up a deal to show the four-match series in India.
Sky Sports and BT Sport had both shown interest in the tour but rights holders Star Sports took negotiations deep, eventually signing with Channel 4 less than 48 hours hours ahead of the first Test in Chennai, which begins at 4am on Friday.
The matches will be shown using a direct live feed from India, with a studio-based commentary team providing insights. It is understood that both Sir Andrew Strauss and Sir Alastair Cook are in line to take part.
A statement from the broadcaster’s chief content officer Ian Katz, read: “This is fantastic news for all cricket fans in the UK. It’s been a long 16-year wait for the return of live Test cricket to free to air television but it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“What better antidote to the lockdown blues than an England Test series in sunny India.”
While the five-day format has been exclusively available via subscription for the best part of a generation – 38-year-old James Anderson being the only current player to have pre-date the shift – the 2019 World Cup final offered a glimpse into the potential appetite.
Sky Sports opted to share their exclusive screening rights with Channel 4 for the Lord’s showpiece, with combined viewing figures of 9.8million, around half of which came from the terrestrial provider.
As well as live coverage on Channel 4, the All 4 service will provide highlights. The biggest likely audience is likely to come in the third Test at Ahmedabad, which is a day/night fixture and will unfold in office hours.
England’s batting consultant in India, Jonathan Trott, played his entire 52-Test career behind the paywall and welcomed the prospect of reaching new fans. With lockdown in full swing in the United Kingdom, he believes the timing could not be better – even if there are a few early starts to factor in.
“I think the more people we can get watching the game is a great idea and fantastic for the sport,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s going to be exciting for everybody. For people in lockdown, hopefully they can watch it and we can get the nation behind the side and give a little bit back in what is quite a testing time all around the world.
“It’s always the ECB’s thought to try and inspire a generation and people to play the game. By doing that on free-to-air – and through Sky as well – it’s about reaching those people and making sure we get as many people playing cricket and playing sport as it’s very important at the current time especially.”
Former England captain David Gower, who spent more than two decades as a key part of Sky’s presenting team before departing in 2019, stressed the value that the subscription service had brought to the game over many years.
“It’s all about free competition and it has always been about the highest bidder,” he said.
“If they are bringing cricket to the UK on free-to-air, as we saw with the World Cup final where Sky made the gesture despite having exclusive rights, the audience goes up automatically. But there has always been the argument – do you want £200million to spend on the game or a substantially smaller sum and have an extra million people watching?
“It’s one of those questions where you can have as many pints as you like in the pub – whenever they open – and still be debating it. Talking about the ECB, they’ve always gone with the argument that they’ve had the money to spend on developing the game and that’s been as important as having people sitting in front of a TV watching.”