Don't butt in - I'm batting

When the Twenty20 county cricketers take to the pitch on Friday, they will be tailed by microphone-wielding reporters chasing a reaction. Matthew Beard reports
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The Independent Online

It will be a pitch invasion like no other - and this time it will be orchestrated by the cricketing authorities. On Friday evening, as soon as there is a break in play, reporters at the Hampshire vs Sussex match at the Rose Bowl will be under orders to scurry on to the field, zig-zag the turf and point their microphones at whoever takes their fancy: fielders, batsmen or officials.

The 350-year-old sport's first new competition for three decades will kick off to the sound of fireworks and pop music and has promised the broadcasters unprecedented access. In return for blanket coverage of the 20-over "Twenty20" competition, Sky, Channel 4 and BBC radio will be able to interview players and officials during the game.

It is being hailed as the future of the sport, the way to bring it home to young viewers. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) hopes it will reverse the decline: audiences for the county game have decreased by 17 per cent in the past six years. "It's about doing things differently and being more adventurous - jazzing it up," says Mark Hodgson, spokesman for the ECB. "Miking up players could be very successful. We want to make players more accessible."

Not just the players. Sitting in the commentary box, Sky's cricket front man, Charles Colville, will, via an intermediary in the seat next to him, be able to question the umpires during breaks in play. Miniature microphones will be worn by one player from each side, preferably the batsman and bowler in the thick of the action, to deliver their tactical thoughts to the armchair viewer.

But, after the recent revelation that Channel 4 has been pressing for Test matches to start 15 minutes earlier, many within the sport fear that the new coverage will mark the moment when the media moved from merely reporting the game to dictating how it is played.

Although one-way live links from referees to the commentary box are used in both rugby codes to help them to rule on tries, the degree of interaction in the cricket tournament and the role of miked-up players represents a huge leap. Football's Premier League may permit schedulers to start many Manchester United games before lunchtime, but for 90 minutes the field of play remains sacrosanct.

Graham Bullock, spokesman for the Association of Cricket Umpires and Scorers, worries about the intrusion. "We are concerned about the additional pressure on colleagues and the effect it will have on their concentration," he says.

Another umpire agrees: "The last thing an umpire wants between overs is someone buzzing in their ear about a decision."

That cuts little ice with the broadcasters. "We are going to bring the listener closer to the action", says Adam Mountford, cricket producer for BBC 5 Live, which will be carrying the live commentary, in place of the more traditional Radio 4. "We want to make them feel that they can almost smell the grass. It is also about demystifying cricket for a new audience. And if a player can find time to sign an autograph during the game, then why can't he talk to one of my reporters?"

Not surprisingly, there is some concern about the new format and promotion among those whose love of the game pre-dates multi-channel television and the demand for value-added coverage.

The captain of Hampshire, John Crawley, says the players have carefully weighed the problems of the intrusion against the potential advantages of educating a new generation in cricket - especially women, teenagers and working people. He says: "The competition has been very well marketed, but obviously there should be limitations on the way it is promoted on the field. I'm not even sure what we are going to have to do in terms of speaking during the game. We will have to guard against getting caught swearing."

And there is another possible pitfall. What if the other side is in the pavilion, watching television? "The concern is", says Adrian Pierson, the coach of Derbyshire, "that players may let slip some of the tactics."

When the cameras become part of the game

Don't talk to the Irish sprinter Paul Brizzel about cameras intruding on sport. At the European Championships last year, his 200-metres campaign ended in the heats when a camera crane came swooping toward him as he was just out of his blocks. He dodged it, came last, lodged an appeal and was allowed to run again ­ but on his own. Finishing just outside the qualifying time, he might have made it in proper conditions.

Cameras can mess things up in other ways, too. More than one tennis player, thinking he is being clever by swearing in his own language, has been shopped by an émigré viewer phoning in.

Cameras are everywhere, though rarely with such intimate access as the ECB has granted. And even in Twenty20, crews will be on the field only during breaks in play. Cyclists are happy to chat early in a stage, but otherwise interviews while an event is in progress are almost unheard of. The BBC's London Marathon coverage features random grillings, but mainly of drag queens, deep-sea divers and minor celebs.

Interviewing can be equally intrusive in the immediate aftermath. ITV's Gary Newbon cornered the market in irritating third-degree jobs on boxers. Sometimes he wasn't at fault, and in February 1995 it was distressing to see him trying to silence the ranting Nigel Benn while he watched Gerald McLellan slide from his stool, brain-damaged.

The solution for recalcitrant cricketers and umpires is to be found ­ possibly ­ in the old baseball blooper featuring the reporter near home plate talking to camera as play is about to resume. The umpire shouts, then yells, then bawls.

"I'm nearly done."

"You're done now!"

Finally, the reporter is removed by gorillas in uniform. If in doubt, manhandle.

Chris Maume