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Peter Hayter column – Let’s have more of this magic – and free to air, too

If Colin Graves, Tom Harrison and those at the England and Wales Cricket Board pushing for acceptance of their Twenty 20 vision needed further evidence of what it might do for the game in this country, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Roelof van der Merwe provided it this week with dancing girls and flashing bails on.

It goes without saying that Stokes’ brilliant 103 from 63 balls for Rising Pune Supergiant against Gujarat Lions in the Indian Premier League, the England all-rounder leading his side from 10-3 to victory by five wickets with one ball to spare, had to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Watching the highlights on Sky TV was breathtaking enough, even though, by then, we all knew the story and how it ended. But imagine if the kind of knock Stokes produced had been available to a free-to-air television audience here, as the ECB are determined to make possible when they start to negotiate the broadcasting rights for their own city-franchise tournament due to begin in 2020.

It is not stretching the bounds too far to suggest that you would not have been reading, watching or hearing the last of it until now and maybe beyond, all aspects of it aired not just by the cricket public, but the sporting public and maybe the general public as well, including debate as to whether Stokes has now confirmed his status as the best player on the planet.

Different formats, different circumstances but same principle with the week’s other headline-makers.

A week ago at Taunton, chasing Surrey’s 290 in the Royal London One-Day Cup, Somerset found themselves 22-5, their supporters in a crowd of 3,000 wondering why they had bothered and what they were going to do with the rest of their afternoon. As he admitted afterwards, that thought had occurred to Van der Merwe, too.

“When I walked out to bat,” he said, “I thought I’d be home by four o’clock with us beaten,” and had Kumar Sangakkara taken Dean Elgar at 22-6 he may well have been.

In the event, the 32-year old South African didn’t close his front door behind him for many hours, after having scored an unbeaten 165 from 122 balls with hitting of which Captain Caveman would have been justifiably proud.

With it, he led his side to victory with six overs and a ball to spare and left his opponents fearing for their safety in the field.

Only three Somerset batsmen have made higher scores in one-day cricket and two of them were later knighted,             Sir Ian Botham, Sir Vivian Richards and Marcus Trescothick.

Fast forward to Headingley on Thursday and Yorkshire’s match against Durham that produced 674 runs, and another gem of a 50-over knock from Bairstow.

Stephen Cook and Michael Richardson had done their bit for the visitors, both making hundreds as Durham set the home side 336 to win.

Opening the innings, Bairstow took it upon himself to save his chums the bother, bashing 174 from 113 balls, including a century in boundaries, seven sixes and 16 fours, hitting 20 in four balls from Cameron Steel, sharing a stand of 189 in 26 overs with his mate and England Test skipper Joe Root and he left the field to a standing ovation from his adoring public.

And there has been much, much more.

For Hampshire against Middlesex, the previously rarely-seen leg-spinner Mason Crane, of whom England have cautious but high hopes, took 3-57.

In reply, Tony Roland-Jones, who may yet force his way into their reckoning settled the rain affected match with 4-9 with bounce from a length, and the pace and promise of Tom Helm impressed former England captain Mike Atherton even more in another match televised by Sky as part of their impressive and laudable commitment to the domestic game.

BBC local radio, websites, county YouTube accounts and other media are also available and do a terrific job of spreading the game and the word.

Former England skipper Michael Vaughan went so far as to re-tweet to his 1.02 million followers, for instance, a message from BBC Test Match Special producer Adam Mountford that: “There were over 5 million page views online for the opening 3 rounds of the County Championship on ‪@BBCSport. Thank You!”

Excellent news, especially when, as Mountford remarked: “We had 1.1 million unique ‘imprints’ on our website for that period, up 400,000 on last year.”

Yet, how much better all round would it be when coverage of live cricket is available not just to those who are prepared to make the effort to find it but also those who may only have a passing interest, or even those with none whatsoever. See Ashes 2005 for details.

For it is that audience cricket in this country must regain if it is to have a viable future as the national summer sport (and winter when England are Down Under, of course). That process can only start with a return to free-to-air TV.

It took a change of leadership at the helm of the ECB to pave the way, Graves, Harrison and their team have known from the start of their deliberations just how vital such a move will be and now, by voting in favour of their proposals for a change, the majority of counties showed they, too, are now persuaded.

This week in Pune, Ben Stokes played an innings that achieved two things.

Firstly, it justified the huge price RSG franchise shelled out for him, at the insistence of their captain Steve Smith, a contract worth £1.7m that made him the highest paid international player in the IPL.

Secondly, it confirmed his status as a household name in India.

One day, thanks to the changes that are coming, he may even aspire to become one in households here.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 5 2017

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