I understand why Kevin Pietersen’s name is being bandied about, not just across the media, but also in pubs and cricket clubs around the land. Love him or hate him, he’s one of the very few cricketers known to the general public, away from the cricket bubble. And why? Because he was one of the England stars of the Ashes winning side of 2005, the last to be shown on terrestrial TV after which the side paraded proudly through the city of London on an open-topped bus. Everyone knew Pietersen, as they knew Michael Vaughan and Freddie Flintoff; genuine sporting superstars who transcended their sport. But that doesn’t happen anymore.
Rupert Murdoch owns cricket in this country. He bought the lot. If you want to watch a one day game, a Test match, a 20/20 game, then you have to pay his monthly subscription. The vast majority of people don’t do that so the casual cricket follower has nowhere else to go. When I was younger, there was the Sunday League, two knock out competitions and Test matches, all available on terrestrial TV. I followed them avidly. Now, not only do I not watch much club cricket on TV, I have little idea what has replaced the Benson and Hedges Cup or the Gillette Cup, assuming anything actually has. I have seen there is one day cricket on Sky, but I am not clear of the format(s). Nor, frankly, do I particularly care.
As an occasional viewer, I do know some of the players. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ian Bell are terrific players, but unlike their counterparts of a decade ago, would not be recognised by all that many people beyond their sport. My partner, who has no interest in cricket, knew who Flintoff and Vaughan were, but she will not have a clue about Joe Root or Gary Ballance and how could she? She will not go out of her way to plough through the myriad of Rupert Murdoch owned channels to find where and who they are. The truth is that cricket is becoming a specialist sport again. As numbers of people playing the game tumbles, so does the level of interest in the country. With the exception of test matches, crowds are falling, and anyway, who can afford a ticket for a test match these days?
But Pietersen we still know. With his flamboyant batting and his bonkers haircuts, people could see via their terrestrial TV channels a sporting superstar. We all know he’s not really English but nationality has long ceased to matter when selecting an England cricket team where it appears more overseas players are permitted than your normal county team. But people do know who he is. The great unwashed who used to be able to watch cricket without being charged an arm and a leg still remember Pietersen. He will probably be the last English cricketing superstar, at least in terms of the general public actually knowing who he is.
He’s not going to picked this summer for England. I don’t really understand the reasons – apparently he doesn’t trust the suits and the suits don’t trust him – but the die is cast. England will go out to bat against the all conquering Aussies this summer and Pietersen won’t be playing. And do you know what? I couldn’t care less. The Ashes is the most important test series for England and Australia and grounds will be packed. Sky will get decent viewing figures, but nothing like the many millions who watched Channel Four in 2005. Cricket fans will be as engrossed as ever, but to the general sporting public, the Ashes will become just another sporting event going on largely in the background, taken away from the general public who either don’t have the money or don’t want to further enrich Murdoch as he continues his monopolistic takeover of televised sport.
The loss of televised cricket has taken away the shared experience of a country all watching something together and then talking about it the next day. It remains our summer game, but only for those who genuinely love cricket. For the casual viewer, it is becoming an irrelevance that is watched by someone else.