Cricket: Channel 4 passes the screen Test

A new era of television coverage was switched on yesterday, and even the `codgers' had nothing to moan about - except for the cricket.
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THE MILLENNIUM arrived five months early for the Sir Bufton Tuftons of England yesterday as the new dawn of cricket television coverage appeared in the form of Channel 4's all-day broadcast from Lord's of the second Test between England and New Zealand. Apocalyptic forecasts had been made about what would happen once the ancient summer game fell into the hands of a broadcaster associated with alternative life-styles. Would they see umpires dressed in druidical robe, or gay men in lime-green lycra shorts delivering the drinks, or Old Lesbians sitting in the Old Harrovian stand?

Though their blood pressures may have risen at the sight of a "chapess", Sybil Ruscoe, doing interviews in front of their hallowed pavilion, there should be no reason for the codgers to fire off letters of complaint to The Times, other than the usual one - England's duff batting. For there was nothing to fear from Channel 4's Test debut, and a great deal to admire about it, as cricket embraced an inclusive, modern idiom after too many years of blazer-clad complacency on the BBC.

The biggest changes wrought by Channel 4 on the work of their predecessors are in their broadcast personnel and the introduction of several presentational novelties. Dropping down a generation to include the likes of the former Hampshire captain Mark Nicholas, the Pakistan captain, Wasim Akram, and the Somerset coach, Dermot Reeve, certainly refreshed the ears, with only one instance of the usual blokeish diminutive being heard. Fortunately it was for Wasim, rather than "Nickers" or "Reefers". With former New Zealand wicketkeeper Ian Smith chipping in waspishly - perhaps a touch gloatingly when Alec Stewart was out, "edge and gone!" - the commentators enjoyed a steady, if unspectacular start. Fewer dreary anecdotes and more observation will do nicely.

In any case, Channel 4 had wisely bought in Richie Benaud, who is not just the best cricket commentator of all time - John Arlott was a close second - but also the best analyst in any sports coverage. Benaud's ability to spot what is about to happen before it happens is well nigh uncanny, and surely stands him in good stead for his bets on horses.

Yesterday morning, he quickly picked up on the fact that New Zealand's bowler Chris Cairns had more purpose than usual. "Someone's got him up against the dressing-room wall and had a word," he observed. Indeed, Cairns was soon laying into the England batsmen in more ways than one. "Bye-bye Thorpey," were his triumphal words to the departing Surrey hitter, replayed in lip-reading slow-motion for the "in-yer-face" generation. With sound- effects microphones buried near the stumps, and very sharp camera work, the viewer is drawn much closer into the action than previously.

The two, much-touted technological innovations - the appallingly named "Snickometer" and the wicket-to-wicket strip - were deployed quite sparingly, perhaps in deference to the umpires. For the moment, the "Snickometer", a sound-wave graphic indicating the ball catching an edge, is only used after dismissals determined by the umpire's own senses, so it merely confirms what the viewer already knows.

The wicket-to-wicket strip is potentially more controversial, being used yesterday to illuminate a couple of lbw decisions that weren't given. With the batsman also being electronically removed from the screen, the device shows both where the ball pitched and whether it would have hit the stumps. You could imagine disappointed bowlers dropping off videos in the umpires' changing-room after close of play, accompanied by a list of local opticians. Otherwise, the "invisible batsman" became an apt image during England' s second-session collapse.

One other innovation, the half-hourly "analyst" spot - technical rather than Freudian - made a more stuttering start. The first two inserts didn't have much to go on; the opening batsmen's stances, then their respective batting grips. But as play progressed there was more for Reeve and Simon Hughes to get their teeth into, particularly with the split-screen replays that showed Graham Thorpe and Aftab Habib getting out in exactly the same fashion as they had at Edgbaston.

Hughes had also voiced a lunchtime slot entitled "Jargon Buster", in which he explained the term "through the gate", the occasion - frequent in England's history - when the ball passes between bat and pad to hit the wicket. Reeve had just "analysed" how Habib guarded against this, when the batsman was bowled through a gap more "barn-door" than "gate". Expressing an opinion is always a hostage to fortune in cricket.

Finally, unlike ITV's coverage of Formula One, the adverts proved to be no intrusion into the cricket, coming at the rate of one for a change of end, and three for a dismissal.

The only contradiction was the ads themselves. Far from being "quote right on" for Channel 4's new cricket audience they mostly featured cars and beer for the lads. Some things never change - like the bad light and rain that shortened a bright new day.