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Fleming takes dim view of TV snub

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

13 December 1997

MATTHEW FLEMING, the hero of England's seven-wicket defeat of India in the first match of the Sharjah tournament on Thursday, expressed his profound disappointment yesterday that the matches were not being shown on television in Britain, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

England play their second game today against the West Indies, who beat Pakistan yesterday, and victory would almost certainly qualify them for the final next Friday.

The rare prospect in recent times of an England side carrying all before them on an overseas tour, albeit a relatively minor one, ought to create some embarrassment among television companies at home. The fact is that Sky, the BBC and even Channel 5, all of whom were offered either live coverage or highlights by the rights-owning company, World Tel, failed to appreciate the potential of these games as timely morale-boosters for all concerned with English cricket.

The miscalculation was understandable, because one must see through the current patriotic tub-thumping to appreciate that this is just another one-day tournament among too many. Today's game will be the 1,261st one-day international since the first such officially recognised match in 1971 and Sharjah, a place with very few cricketers in the native Arab population, has staged more than any other ground in the world.

It is a miscalculation, nonetheless, and one which could still be redressed. Speaking in Dubai yesterday Mark Mascarenhas, the boss of World Tel, said that the remaining games were open for negotiation, suggesting that the BBC, who were offered a 45-minute highlights package on each game for only 70,000 overall, could still show them for what is an absolute bargain price. What he did not say is that his original asking price of Sky, for live coverage, was believed to be about $1 million. By last month it had been reduced to $200,000 - but by then Sky had filled their winter schedules.

The BBC will not be tempted, however, having spent their budget - believed to be 500,000 - on a highlights package from England's winter tour of the West Indies. ``We have already made a big commitment,'' said a BBC spokesman yesterday. ``No, we won't be taking any Sharjah highlights.''

Mascarenhas, the Indian-born American who also acts as agent for Sachin Tendulkar - both are millionaires - is known to feel that Sky got the rights to the last World Cup, which he sold to a rival company, Trans World International, too cheaply. Mascarenhas reserved his main expressions of regret yesterday for the fact that Sky did not this time pay for live coverage.

The tournament is being shown instead in the Asian region by the Hong Kong-based Star television, which, like Sky, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. The TV audience for games in this now established neutral battleground for India and Pakistan is estimated at a little matter of 81 million. When Dordishan, India's terrestrial company, take coverage that figure is at least quadrupled.

Mascarenhas suggested that Sky were foolish to be transmitting one-day matches between Australia and New Zealand, adding: ``Surely that is nothing compared to watching your national team.''

Fleming, 33, aimed his strictures more at the BBC. ``If the BBC want a level playing field for televising the game at home it's very, very disappointing that they can't accept an offer to screen highlights for 70,000,'' he said. ``Even if they showed them late at night people could video them.''

He would certainly like a recording of his own part in the intense finish against India, when his four for 45 completed the job so expertly begun with the bat by Alec Stewart. He picked up the right pace and length for the slow surface and took the decisive wicket when Tendulkar came dancing down the pitch to an offside yorker and missed.

Dougie Brown, though he bursts with healthy ambition and desire to improve, was the least successful at finding the right length and, equally important, the right pace. He may be given a second chance against the West Indies today, but Peter Martin is a steadier and more experienced performer and should probably have been chosen in the first place.

England missed a trick by apparently being unaware of their right to ask for a change of ball when it became discoloured during their innings. Although, by the latest ICC regulations, both sides can ask for a change, it is entirely the umpires' decision whether or not to grant the request. The ball has to be switched for one of similar age, but obviously not of similar condition.

Peter Burge, the former Australian batsman who is the referee throughout this tournament, is intending to recommend a reversion to the use of two white balls in future matches at Sharjah. He had to oversee a change of the ball late in India's innings against England. There is little doubt that every batting side will follow India's lead as the tournament progresses in conditions where the ball quickly loses its whiteness.

There was a shortage of replacement balls on Thursday, which explained Burge's involvement. He said that the peculiar mix of lush grass and sand at Sharjah made sighting the ball a problem, though the same phenomenon is common in other countries, especially where there is dew after dark. He will suggest one new ball at each end in certain parts of the world, as was once the fashion.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 15:30