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This article has undergone more incarnations than the Doctor in Doctor Who. That’s because, as cricket-loving expat Brits will know all too well, it’s getting more and more difficult to listen to Test Match Special over the Internet if you’re not in the UK.

If you are abroad and navigate to the BBC cricket commentary web page you’ll find the audio link isn’t available or, if it is, it does not work. Because of so-called “rights issues”, the BBC places geographical restrictions on who can listen to Test Match Special. Not everyone is tech savvy enough to get round this, and this piece is intended for those who need a bit of help with the steps needed to bypass these restrictions.

Your Internet service provider assigns your home network an IP (Internet Protocol) address. Just like a street address, this identifies your location. This means the BBC (or any other website) can tell where in the world you’re connecting to it from. If your IP address identifies you as being in a country other than the UK, the BBC will then restrict your access to TV and radio programmes. What you need to do is fool the BBC site into believing you are connecting to it from within the UK. This is where proxy servers come in.

A proxy server is essentially an intermediary between you and whatever website you want to connect to. Think of it like this: you live in Germany and you want to send a letter to the UK, but you want the letter to arrive with a British stamp and postmark. You’d do this by sending the letter to a third party in the UK, who would put your letter in a new envelope, address it and post it. A proxy server works on the same principle. You first connect to a third-party server in the UK, which will have a UK IP address. (Note the space between UK and IP – we’re not talking about the location of Farage’s former mob here!) That server will then connect to the website – in this case the BBC, which will then see an IP address in the UK and grant access to its programmes.

If you do a search for “free proxies” you’ll find plenty of proxy servers offering IPs in the UK. You have to configure your network to connect to them, but I’m not going to explain how to do that for the simple reason it’s not worth the bother. Most of these free proxies don’t work or offer such a slow connection it’s impossible to listen to a live audio stream. Even if you do get lucky and find a reliable proxy with a fast connection, the chances are you still won’t be able to listen to the cricket because the BBC blacklists known proxy IP addresses. Nice to know the licence fee is being so usefully spent!

The reality is that if you want to listen to the cricket you’ll have to pay. You can get software that connects you to a reliable, fast proxy with a few clicks. You pay a subscription for the service, but it’s worth it in the long run. In past versions of this piece I recommended a program called Hide IP NG (which later became Hide IP Speed) from Hide-IP-Soft.com, which has served me well for about ten years. It offered several UK IP addresses (and a whole lot more US IP addresses) and although the service was always a bit creaky – some of the IP addresses didn’t work – it did the job just fine. Unfortunately it’s now creakier than the castle door in a horror film. Of the 13 UK IP addresses they were offering at the end of 2019, only three worked and these were known to, and blocked by, the BBC. For some time there has been no technical support at all – you can send an email but you won’t get a reply. Hide IP is quite cheap and may be OK if you just want a random IP to disguise your own IP address, but I can no longer recommend it at all as a way of getting around the BBC’s geographical restrictions.

Recently I have started to use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Basically, they are proxy servers with knobs on. The two I recommend are ExpressVPN and NordVPN. Both do a good job of providing IPs which get round the BBC's tiresome geographical restrictions. You can learn more about VPNs from a well-informed source here.

Be warned, though: even with a good VPN your problems aren’t entirely over. You are sharing your VPN’s IP with many other people. As soon as the BBC detects an unusually large number of connections coming from the same IP address, they will most likely block it. Both ExpressVPN and NordVPN work hard to stay ahead by changing their IPs regularly, but they have their work cut out. With 3 billion pounds income from the licence fee a year, the BBC has by far the greater resources.

If you're using a VPN and there’s still no audio link available on the BBC Sport cricket page, try finding the commentary on BBC Radio Five Live. You may have more luck there. That’s happened to me a few times. Or you may run into this message:

This content doesn’t seem to be working. Please try again later.

I wonder how many people have taken this at face value and waited patiently for the BBC to repair some glitch. I know I have. What this means in reality is

We’ve rumbled that you’re using a VPN. Go away.

Apart from that smug and unnecessary “seems” – something is either working or it isn’t – why does this message have to be so misleading? If you do see this, you need to use one of your VPN provider’s other IP addresses and eventually you should get through. Remember to clear out BBC cookies in between switching IPs. This is important; the BBC uses those to track where you’re coming from too. Even then, there will be times when you have to give up and wait for your VPN provider to offer new IPs.

After reading the above you might think VPNs aren’t worth the bother. But they are the only way, at present, that you have any chance of listening to the cricket outside the UK. In fairness, the BBC sometimes provides an audio stream on YouTube for non-UK listeners, but that can be unreliable with frequent buffering. (If they can give us TMS on YouTube, why not on their own site?!)

Lest I get an attack of the Beeboids (that’s a good name for a sci-fi B-movie, if ever there was one) I should add that I would willingly stump up for a BBC subscription for expats. I have no interest in any of the BBC’s other content so it would be expensive, but then VPNs aren’t cheap either. Such a subscription would render the time and money spent on proxy servers redundant and provide the BBC with more revenue.

Instead, I fear the day will come when you need proof of a TV licence before you can get access to BBC programmes online – even in the UK – and expat cricket fans would then be well and truly stuffed. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen, but if it does I hope that Talksport gets the rights to all Test match broadcasts. They did a couple of series recently and although the commentary wasn’t quite the calibre of Test Match Special at its best – and there were adverts, of course – they didn’t block overseas listeners because of stupid “rights issues”.

Who knows what the future will hold for Brits living abroad who want to follow the greatest sport of all? For the time being, I would recommend ExpressVPN, or a similar service, for listening to TMS for reasons outlined above. Enjoy the cricket and good luck to our team!