Cricket coverage: Sky Sports scores a century

The broadcaster has reached its 100th Test. Ian Burrell was Twelfth Man in a commentary box full of former England captains and other experts to discover how the venerable game and the digital age come together
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The Independent Online

THE DOOR opens and a cake arrives, a giant fluffy sponge covered in icing and filled with jam and cream.

David Gower, the former England cricket captain, approaches the offering with the sort of disdainful look he used to reserve for a long hop before pulling it to the leg-side boundary. "Can we swap it for a couple of bottles of Champagne? What's the exchange rate these days?" he asks, in the clipped accent familiar to viewers of BBC quiz show They Think It's All Over.

The sponge is a gift to mark the 100th Test covered by Sky Sports and has been delivered to the commentary box perched high above the Vauxhall End at the Oval cricket ground in London. Along the corridor, the BBC radio Test Match Special team has, over many years, made the ritual devouring of chocolate cake a staple feature of the show. But this is not the gentle Olde Englande world of Blowers and Aggers, keeping alive the memory of Brian "Jonners" Johnston, after whom this Oval broadcasting gantry is named. The Sky team operates on an energy level that is more high-octane.

How else could it retain the interest of the most famous English cricketing star of them all, Ian Botham, a man not naturally suited to sedentary activity? Beefy, along with Gower, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, is part of a Sky team of four former England captains. It is the cricketing A-list, bolstered today by the presence of West Indies pace legend Michael Holding and former Pakistan test star Rameez Raja.

From early morning until the drawing of stumps, these captains are constantly shooting off quick-fire quips or insightful observations, both on and off the air. Botham thrives on it. "The thing most players miss is the dressing-room banter, the repartee, the comradeship. We have never lost any of that, as you can see. Most guys lose it but we didn't lose it. I think it's reflected in the commentary, there's comradeship and there's banter. And, at the end of the day, it works."

The big day certainly isn't starting so well. Pakistani pacer Mohammad Asif manages just two deliveries, the 199,292nd and 199,293rd respectively in the history of Sky Test coverage, when the players are sent scuttling back to the pavilion by the weather. Rain stops play. Rupert and James Murdoch's big-bucks broadcaster may have transformed the fortunes of football and Rugby League but Test cricket, with its vulnerability to the elements and its tendency to fail to find a winner after five days of competition, presents a different set of televisual headaches.

The executive producer Barney Francis, sitting in an elevated position from which he co-ordinates coverage with the aplomb of an orchestral conductor, offers a succession of prompts, factoids and witticisms. But as the umbrellas go up he purses his lips in a rare sign of stress. The avuncular David "Bumble" Lloyd, another former England player in the Sky team, is looking at the forecast and piling on the gloom: "Heavy thundery showers... it's quite dark out there." For a cricket commentary team rain signals extra work.

Francis, a Hampstead CC amateur cricketer living the dream of earning his corn by working alongside the game's greats, says: "People are at home saying 'God, it's going to be one of those days'. The most important thing for us is to keep the viewers and we keep them by being interesting."

Lloyd, Holding and Hussain go into an informed three-way discussion. Francis can be confident that his colleagues understand what their roles entail. Atherton says: "There is a fundamental difference between broadcasting on television and radio. You have got pictures on television and so you are trying to say why something has happened and get beyond those pictures. In newspaper terms it is the difference between a correspondent and a columnist."

Nasser Hussain has today been nominated as Sky's "Third Man", meaning that he must provide the retrospective analysis, introducing clips of film that show patterns of play that the viewer may have missed. "I am trying to explain techniques, bowler's statistics that sort of thing. I like to do it from a captaincy angle," he says. "When you are doing ball-by-ball commentary there's so much going on that you don't really have time to build anything like this."

He can put together this sort of package because, beyond the commentary position, a major broadcasting operation is underway. In a truck beneath the stand, director Mark Lynch is at the hub of a network of 30 camera positions (including those next to the stumps), 45 microphones and more than 80 production staff. Roger Chambers, production manager, is Lynch's fixer par excellence, doing everything from booking satellite lines and rigging the trucks to organising the accreditation passes for Beefy and Co. He has already been to Australia to recce all five Ashes grounds and made two visits to the Caribbean in anticipation of the Cricket World Cup, which begins in March. At the latter event Sky's team will be based in a beachfront studio in Barbados. Chambers tries to argue that all this travelling isn't quite the cushy number it sounds like and his point is made when he is called away to arrange a car-park pass.

After a further rain interruption, the umpires decide on an early lunch interval. Francis treats Atherton and the viewing public to a re-run of Athers's marathon 11-hour knock of 185 against South Africa. Botham is giving short shrift to someone who calls his mobile: "In case you haven't noticed it's raining and we're all running around. Call back tomorrow." In fact, he is sitting down and setting about his salad lunch.

The England first innings begins to unravel. Strauss, Pietersen and Collingwood go back up the pavilion steps like a succession of conga-dancers.

The door opens and Hussain, like a master of ceremonies at a banquet, greets the new arrival: "Botham's pork pie is in the house." Beefy eagerly takes up the pastry as if he was being tossed the new ball.

By tea England are floundering at 112-6 but Bumble is out on the pitch, flirting on camera with npower promotions girls Sal and Jess, who are presenting him with another cake. The Lancastrian shoots the camera a look of lechery worthy of the late Les Dawson. Sal is later invited to sit in the Sky "Third Man" chair and prompts a flurry of e-mail traffic from viewers watching at their computers all around the world.

Questions about viewing figures draw a succession of "ums" and "errs" but no numbers. Sky, whose ownership of Test rights for the next four years has attracted great controversy, knows that, as a digital broadcaster, it cannot compete with Channel 4's terrestrial audience for a winning Ashes series. But Gower more eloquently explains the impact Sky has had over 16 years, for example in introducing coverage of foreign tours, which has encouraged the growth of England's Barmy Army of travelling support. He claims that Sky, which has introduced ultra-slow-motion footage, stump microphones and high-definition pictures, has not had the credit it deserves. "Lots of people have a misconception about Channel 4's innovation, when in a lot of cases Sky got their first."

Yet Francis explains that, despite all this innovation, Sky wants to "preserve the integrity" of Tests and will not seek to introduce the gimmickry of what he calls "pyjama cricket" and "hit and giggle" one-day contests.

At stumps England have been bowled out for a paltry 173, but spirits in the box remain high. Beefy and Holding have had a good day on the geegees and the team have a centenary dinner to go to tonight.

"The aim has always been to make it sound like fun," says Gower. "Part of the job is to imbue that sense of enjoyment."