The first Test of the two-month tour begins in Chennai on Friday and negotiations over UK broadcasting are ongoing, with the global rights holders, Star Sports, having held talks with Channel 4, Sky and BT.
A source close to the deal in India told the Observer on Saturday that a contract has not yet been signed but added that the offer from Channel 4 is “compelling” and an announcement could come as soon as Monday if no further bids arrive.
Sky has privately played down the prospects of a deal but may yet feel forced to move. However, Sky is also looking to secure the rights for the Ashes series in Australia – slated for a possible mid-December start because of quarantine restrictions – that are due to become available after four years of BT Sport showing Australia home matches.
Sky shouldering arms to the India rights would pave the way for Channel 4 to televise its first Test cricket since the 2005 Ashes – and the first proper away coverage on terrestrial TV in England’s history – and could reopen the debate about the visibility of the men’s national team outside the two home Twenty20s per summer shown on BBC Sport.
Channel 4 appears confident of attracting strong audience figures during the UK lockdown. That was certainly the case for the 2019 World Cup final, when a late decision by Sky to share its broadcast resulted in a record UK audience for an England international.
An audience of 15.4m tuned in to Channel 4 for some part of England’s triumph that day and a peak of of 8.7m viewers at the start of the super over – 5.2m on Channel 4 and 3.7m via Sky’s platforms – surpassed the previous record peak of 8.4m for the closing stages of the 2005 Trent Bridge Ashes Test.
Star had originally considered showing the tour on its Hotstar streaming service in the UK. The radio rights in the UK have already gone to TalkSport, who outbid the BBC Sport, and though a Test Match Special programme is still expected to air in some form, it would not contain ball-by-ball commentary.
Jos Buttler, meanwhile, has defended England’s decision to fly him home to rest after the first Test in Chennai, before returning for the white-ball leg of the tour. The wicketkeeper said: “The ECB have been forward thinking in rotating players for this series. At times, it’s frustrating as you want to have the best players on the show all the time but it’s not possible with the amount of time that you spend in a bio bubble.
“The [England] T20 side, we haven’t had that time to play together as a group and familiarity with roles, so to play against a brilliant side like India gives us the perfect preparation for the [T20 World Cup in India in October].”