Changing England, but for how long?

WE are in the middle of an Ashes series that has changed, at least for the moment, England's sporting landscape. The successful Olympic bid has been largely forgotten. The cricket has rendered nondescript the start of the Premiership season, which enthrals millions in Asia and Africa to add to the following in England and Europe.

The series has, believe it or not, resulted in the ECB actually getting an offer for broadcast rights in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

It has boosted the sales of the England cricket shirt to an extent that the country's international football shirt and Premiership merchandise are struggling to keep pace.

It has had the Governor of the Bank of England explaining the London Stock Exchange using the fluctuating fortunes of the Edgbaston Test as the reference point.

It has led to the crowning glory of a Lancastrian commoner with working class origins and accent as the country's new sporting hero, with the displaced king — who is married to a pop star and has a mansion named Beckingham Palace — not even in the country to anoint the successor.

It has unfurled before us its amazing skills through some gifted and colourful practitioners of batting and bowling (though not necessarily fielding). Thanks to its frenetic run rates, attacking fields, fluctuating fortunes, edge-of-the-seat finishes and great spectator responses including Mexican waves, shouting, dancing, singing and brilliant banner writing, it has reinvented Test cricket as new, young, modern and vibrant — a product that will be bought easily by the Twenty20 and the Premiership generation, without necessarily alienating its traditional fan following of elderly, middle-aged, affluent people.

Things might appear rosy for England's cricket administrators, who have been tweaking the system from 1999 to make cricket a more inclusive sport. However, in these good times, the ECB should do some projections for the future, and plan ahead. The first step of that came through an unlikely source, a widely read tabloid, which asked the question that those in the corridors of power in the ECB dread to hear — What after the Australians go home? Though the last day of the Old Trafford Test match had a terrestrial viewership of 7.7 million on Channel Four, the highest for cricket ever, from next summer live action from the summer is exclusive property of BSkyB, which is a pay-per-view channel with considerably less reach across the population because of questions of social access and demography.

The ECB, after signing the controversial deal last December that gave them a record �220 million over the next four years, had explained that the major challenge for cricket in England was to get young kids playing the game in schools and clubs, for which the extra money will come in handy. Knowing full well that Australia would be touring the last summer of live cricket on terrestrial TV, the ECB had taken a calculated gamble in forecasting that the narrowing of the gap between the two sides would pave the way for a close Ashes series which would just be the right moment for the game to break into the consciousness of a young population, 45 per cent of whom according to a 2004 poll did not care about the game.

That gamble has paid off. However, there might be an inherent flaw in this mode of thinking. In modern Britain, there is a huge basket of competing interests in the sport, leisure and entertainment industries. It is not enough for cricket to just make a splash in public consciousness, but it has to remain there consistently over a period of time. This is possible only through propaganda, and marketing. Though the England Test team is doing its best over the last two years through its results, it is debatable whether pay-per-view is the most democratic medium to showcase their skills.

Crucially, England is still caught in a time warp in matters concerning cricket tastes. Test cricket is still the most popular form of cricket — Twenty20 is popular because it is marketed as a one-stop shop combining cricket with popular entertainment such as music, food, drink and gambling — and Australia draws the most crowds. During the period of West Indies dominance in the 1970s and 1980s, the team used to be a crowd puller. But, the dominant community of England is indifferent to high-quality teams from the Subcontinent when they visit. On these occasions, the expatriate community throngs the grounds, and they prefer the 50-over version of the game, which, ironically, is the least favoured version for the majority population. In the last decade and half, the World Cups, even the 1992 one where England reached the final, have had lower television viewership than the Ashes.

It is time for the ECB to take note of such worryingly schismatic tendencies in cricket, even as the world sits back to enjoy what promises to be a great climax to an already memorable Ashes summer.