Just not cricket?

Pleasing BBC Test-match groupies was never going to be easy, but new wicket-keeper Channel 4 intends to play it straight
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The Independent Culture
Mark Sharman, the Controller of Sport at Channel 4, has an important announcement to make about his channel's coverage of the Test cricket that starts this week. "There will be no cartoon ducks," he declares. Daddles, the animated duck that appeared when batsmen were dismissed for nought, was pioneered by the brash Channel 9 in Australia. The unfortunate bird has been held up by traditionalists as the symbol of all that is wrong with "new-fangled" coverage of the game.

But Sharman is anxious to reassure the bastions of the MCC that cricket is safe in his hands. C4, he claims, will not be some Barmy Army barbarian trashing the family silver that has been lovingly polished by the BBC for the last 60 years. He even suggests that people's armchair enjoyment of the game may be enhanced by C4's coverage.

"Everyone is expecting us to turn it upside down, but I see it as a case of evolution rather than revolution," declares this former Deputy Managing Director of Sky Sports. "On the BBC, there was this sense that it was a private club. They would make assumptions about what people knew. We want to make cricket coverage more informative and entertaining. There won't be that assumed knowledge."

But isn't that just code for the buzzword of the moment: "dumbing down"? Sharman says not. "I liken it to the effect of Andy Gray on Sky's football coverage. We all thought we knew football, but through Gray's enthusiasm we were soon learning new things about the game. Without talking down to the audience, we hope to do the same with cricket."

C4 certainly did much to calm the nerves of the old-school brigade by hiring as a commentator Richie Benaud, the man widely seen as the face and voice of cricket. "If we hadn't got Richie, people would have said `it is not the same'," Sharman admits. "It's the Murray Walker syndrome, because he represents the continuation of familiarity. There's a warmth about Richie that comes across to the viewer."

Joining Benaud in the commentary box is a clutch of former pros who, in their heyday, would have formed the core of a pretty decent team: Mark Nicholas, Dermot Reeve, Ian Smith, Wasim Akram and Michael Holding. Simon Hughes, another BBC alumnus, will be a roving reporter alongside the former Radio 5 Live presenter Sybil Ruscoe (above).

Like the recent admission of women into the MCC, a female TV cricket presenter will be a first. But doesn't this whiff of gimmickry? Not in Sharman's opinion. "Sybil is a good journalist. She interviews with a lot of sympathy, and knows the game. She is there on merit."

Other innovations include a midday magazine programme, Lunchbreak, a jargon-buster feature explaining such arcane phrases as "googly" and "silly mid-off"; and a "snickometer", which will ally soundwaves to pictures, capturing the action each 25th of a second. This will determine whether a batsman has touched the ball to the wicket-keeper - something that is bound to stimulate further discussion in the bar.

It is, Sharman asserts, this "fresh, bright and breezy" approach that won C4 the terrestrial contract to broadcast home Test matches for the next four years. "The BBC went in for a more laissez-faire, traditionalist approach. We said, `hang on, we can liven it up'.

"We won't do anything so different that the traditionalists won't like it - Benaud is our insurance policy against that," Sharman concludes. "But there is no point in keeping the coverage the same, because cricket just isn't attracting kids in Britain. In Australia, South Africa and the Indian sub-continent, cricket is hugely popular with youngsters. There, it is not presented as an old-fashioned, elitist game. It's modern and exciting, and has heroes and villains. They're playing a different game; a sport of power and colour. Unless we capture that, the game here won't progress. You can't say the rest of the world is wrong because they are taking the game forward."

No, their only obvious error has been Daddles the Duck.

C4's coverage of the England vs New Zealand Test series begins on Thur

James Rampton