Tricky wickets

Television cricket coverage is desperately trying to woo new viewers with technological gimmickry. But producers seem to have lost faith in the sport's traditional virtues, argues Paul Stump
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The Independent Culture
Question: what are Englishmen worse at than playing cricket? Answer: televising it. Cricket on the box has become almost as unwatchable as your average England middle-order batting collapse.

As with many English cricketing calamities, one need only look to Australia to apportion blame. When the perfidious Kerry Packer tore cricket apart in 1977 for the benefit of his TV station Channel 9, he consequently imposed upon the shell-shocked game a form of broadcast presentation which, we were assured, would make cricket "palatable" to a "modern" audience. No matter that the scoffed-at simplicity of existing presentation was perfectly adequate and reflected the essentially understated nature of cricket's charm. Such lordly and patronising ignorance has characterised TV's attitude towards the game ever since. It's given us the surreal silliness of cameras in wickets, microphones in the crease, "double-ended" coverage of play from alternate ends, and animated wildfowl appearing on screen when batsmen score ducks.

The BBC (whose cricket coverage is now provided, in association with Sky, by TransWorld International) has spared us that latter gem, but we've nonetheless been saddled with the rest of these "innovations", all in the name, one presumes, of the Packerite motion of "progress". But such gimmickry perhaps illustrates the lack of progress affecting TV cricket coverage.

TV has made great strides in reflecting the depth and breadth of football and its culture beyond packages of highlights, with the likes of Standing Room Only and Fantasy Football League. While TV football now attempts to address the game through eyes other than those of washed-up players and jaded producers - in other words, the eyes of the fans - TV cricket is obviously still in the hands of a comfortable and pensionable oligarchy. Equipped with an anecdotally rich, statistically overwhelming and socially diverse game, they resort to making their sport "relevant" to the 1990s with unwanted and intrusive technical frippery (what next? "Box-vision", giving us close-ups of a Courtney Walsh special hitting Robin Smith in the knackers?).

The fan experience as related in books like Peter Tinniswood's Brigadier series and Marcus Berkmann's much-acclaimed Rain Man - not to mention the flourishing cricket fanzine Johnny Miller 96 Not Out - is an indication of the humour and vitality of cricket culture in the 1990s as seen by a generation of thirty and fortysomething fans brought up not in the cigarette- card era of cricket but the tabloid era. But TV pooh-poohs it all. Even the tea 'n' cake whimsy of Radio 4's Test Match Special makes a better fist than TV of tackling the game's wilder and weirder issues.

The TV barons can't be scared of offending cricket's administrators by scrapping their boring approach to the game - after all, they have a financial hammerlock on cricket strong enough to decree the use of white balls, black sight-screens and bilberry-and-Caramac romper-suits at the drop of a floppy sunhat. So why is TV cricket discourse still pickled in aspic?

There are still plus points. The cool-clad and godlike Richie Benaud remains one of the great broadcasters - a voice of immense authority and invention, crucially augmenting with the insight of the trained journalist the otherwise exhausted role of old-pro pontificator. Geoff Boycott is refreshingly iconoclastic and similarly free of the old-campaigner cliches that seem to haunt cricket more than any other TV sport. Multi-angled replays and computer graphics have been strikingly used to elucidate the game's finer points to greenhorns - proof that technology can serve the game usefully if it is used intelligently.

But mostly it's pretty grim. David Gower's Cricket Monthly, puffed by the Beeb as an "antidote" to this ennui, merely emphasises how deep-seated the problem is. The "antidote" is just a bit of corny jump-cutting (old hat) and substandard Techno (older hat). Between the trickery, the content is antediluvian in inspiration and execution - Graham Gooch's "batting tips" are delivered with such deadpan headmasterliness that one half-expects Mr Cholmondeley-Warner and Mr Grayson to walk on.

English cricket needs some good, fast PR as much as it needs some good fast bowlers. The unrelenting repetition of failure and farce have further reduced its credibility in an era when its arcane traditions are far behind the zeitgeist. Nowadays most adolescent boys would rather take one E than take 10 wickets and (perhaps more understandably) would rather score with Whigfield than score a century at Sydney. While the England team may be beyond repair, though, surely it's not much to ask for the game's pride - and possible future in this country - to be bolstered by presenting cricket professionally and imaginatively to its huge audience as the funny, fascinating, mesmerising and infuriating game it is, and not simply and facelessly as a throwaway commodity.