TV made cricket a far more simple game to follow
You can’t see cricket on free-toair TV, certainly not live cricket. Some have argued that this is a root cause of the lack of interest in the game among the younger generation, but it is contentious whether this matters. The fact that youngsters can name wrestlers rather more readily than they can name cricketers seems slightly irrelevant, as wrestling is not on free-to-air TV either. And television is of rather less interest to the young than it was: there’s plenty of cricket on YouTube if you want to watch it.
When I was young cricket was indeed on television, and there was little else to distract you. It might well be the only thing that was on television, certainly before ITV, and probably for some time after as the daytime hours were not much used – surely only sports nuts would watch TV in the daylight hours, which in any case was seen as slightly immoral behaviour.
Before the war, with no television, restricted to radio and newspaper coverage, boys in the street could play cricket and impersonate their heroes who they had never seen live or in most cases on moving pictures, just blurry shots in the newspapers or perhaps on a cigarette card. For sports lovers the only alternative was football, even more rarely available than cricket, and then of course once TV became more widespread the FA took steps to make sure that with very few exceptions it was absolutely not to be seen. Boxing was more widely known then, but not given great coverage.
For most of the 1950s and 1960s it was not just that cricket was on television, it was almost the only sport on television regularly, especially in the summer and except for Wimbledon fortnight (which as far as most were concerned was the only time of year that anybody anywhere played tennis). So in the summer holidays, if you were not out on the street playing, you watched cricket.
The great change came when the football authorities realised that television was offering great pots of gold, and that football on TV would not mean that football grounds emptied (though of course we still have, at 3pm on Saturday, the one time that football cannot be shown). Live football audiences had grown bigger than the crowds for cricket by the First World War, and 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon was easier than half a day at the cricket.
Maybe we have to avoid looking at everything through the prism of 2005 and thinking that year was the natural state of things. Perhaps that was just a success with the audience in the way that odd Olympic sports are suddenly on everyone’s lips when a rare British success comes along.
Highlight: 2005 Ashes