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Can Australia win the Ashes?

SMH's Daniel Lane looks at what Cricket Australia needs to do in order to win the Ashes.

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When the going gets tough, the tough . . . go to bed. That's the harsh truth delivered by viewers to the Australian cricket team and free-to-air broadcaster Nine by ratings numbers showing a dramatic audience plunge for the second Ashes Test.

With the Lord's contest ending with a thumping English victory on day four of the contest, it wasn't only our humbled heroes licking their wounds. Nine was looking at Monday morning returns that were in stark contrast to the figures that only a week ago the network had announced were a ratings triumph for a digital offshoot channel.

On Sunday last week, Gem corralled 13.3 per cent of the metro audience and 12.7 per cent of regional viewers as the first Test went down to the wire and Australia appeared on the verge of an unlikely comeback victory. A week on, there is a sobering reality check for Nine. Gem's audience share was halved – 6.2 per cent metro, 8 per cent regional – translating to 355,000 viewers for session one, the prime-time slot that a week before drew 679,000 sets of eyes. Session two dropped from 558,000 on the previous Sunday to 246,000.

Former Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath rings the Lord's bell prior to day four of the 2nd Investec Ashes Test match between England and Australia. Click for more photos

Second Test, day four

Former Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath rings the Lord's bell prior to day four of the 2nd Investec Ashes Test match between England and Australia. Photo: Getty

Topping the cricket on the Sunday digital list: Shaun the Sheep on ABC2 and The Big Bang Theory on Nine's other extra channel, Go!

The results confirm the risks inherent in committing big resources to live sport: without drama, tension and at least the possibility of an Australian victory, it's largely the diehard fans who will tune in and not the casual viewers who can send ratings for everything from tennis to cycling through the roof if the right ingredients are present.

But the digital era means the gamble is not the all-or-nothing ratings moment it once was when the commercial networks had only one station to play with. With Nine able to put its Ashes broadcasts on Gem, in high definition, it has the freedom to keep its main channel free for standard TV fare with wide appeal and consistent pulling power.

Sunday's results show the wisdom of Nine making Gem its Ashes outlet.

Despite the plunge in cricket numbers, Nine still came away with overall bragging rights, pipping Seven in the metro markets (24.5 per cent versus 23.3) and taking overall honours when digital offshoot channels were thrown in (34.5 per cent to Seven's 31).

The ABC was in third place on main channel figures (12.1 metro) followed by Ten on 11.7, though with digital extras added in, Ten squeaked into third, with 15.4 per cent against Aunty's 14.5.

On pay TV, the cricket topped the charts for Fox Sports, with 222,000 Sunday night viewers.

The third Test begins on Saturday, August 3, at Old Trafford. If England wins again – nailing a 3-0 series victory – both Nine and Foxtel will be facing very grim numbers for the final two contests of the English summer. The Australians would be playing for honour but few viewers are likely to care.

Cricketers and broadcasters will be hoping for redemption when the historic rivals face off again in this year designed as a cricket tragic's dream: there's another Ashes series to come in the Australian summer.