Cricket: Thin red line between game and gameshow

Stephen Brenkley tunes in as a new episode in cricket coverage has its screen test
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The Independent Online
NEVER IN 17 years and more than 2,000 editions of Countdown can Richard Whiteley's appearance have been so welcome. It happened at teatime during the Second Test at Lord's on Friday when the presenter of the longest running quiz show on British television was interviewed by Richie Benaud.

At last, a break from cricket, at last a man who confessed immediately that despite, or because of, coming from Yorkshire he knew nothing about the game. For almost two days Channel 4, screening Test matches live for the first time, had submerged us in figures, talk, camera angles, interviews, replays, technology, more talk, analysis, nostalgia.

They said they would do it and they lived up to almost every promise. The viewer was in danger of being suffocated by cricket, cricket experts, cricket statistics, cricket pictures, cricket balls. From 10.30am through to 6.30pm and then again from 7.40pm to 8.30pm their refusal to allow you to come up for air seemed adamant. What they did not know about cricket was probably not worth knowing; what they knew about anything else at all they were not telling. Except for Whiteley.

He was wheeled on to present himself to Richie as a reminder of what the network had sacrificed for this. Countdown was the first programme on Channel 4; it remains the most popular and but for their successful bid to show England's Test matches for the next four years it would have been on there and then. "We haven't had," said Richie in his drollest form, "more than 3,000 or 4,000 calls asking why the hell the cricket is on."

Whiteley's cheery appearance was perhaps to appease those who were suffering withdrawal symptoms, though having done it once it might be difficult to decide what to do for an encore. His Countdown sidekick, Carol Vorderman, could be a possibility but the likelihood is that she not only knows about cricket but would also talk about it only too cogently.

Doubtless, we shall become accustomed to the blanket, leave-nothing-to- chance, coverage. Channel 4 have already demonstrated that they are serious about this. Which was actually a difficulty. In their mission to be different, or at least better than the BBC, they forgot that cricket, even as played by England, should be fun. They were the new pupils in class, anxious to show their credentials to teacher and forever putting up their hand. "I know that, sir, I know that sir..." Well, yes, sonny, we are sure that you do, but just relax sometimes.

They did their homework all right. They had cameras all around the place, 22 of them, covering angles uncharted by navigators, their pictures sharp and their replays immediate. According to the network's head of sport, Mark Sharman, on the first day, they would use replays more sparingly and considerately than had been the case.

This did not prevent more replays of each wicket to fall than there can have been in history. Sharman also said that they would be careful not to overemploy their toys. By this, he meant the gizmos, the high-tech stuff which can explain the complications of the game while causing potential embarrassment for umpires, though as the longest-serving of them all, David Constant, pointed out, when asked for his observations, they all foreshortened the view and could never therefore replace or provide conclusive evidence for umpires to act on.

Chief among the gadgets were the red line, a strip between the wickets to show the trajectory of the ball to help to judge lbw decisions; the snickometer, which uses sound from the stump microphone to detect if the ball has touched the edge of the bat; and something portentously called the analyst in which happenings in the game, such as the swinging ball and different batting grips, were studied with close-up video evidence. These can be fascinating alike for the aficionado and the Countdown devotees Channel 4 presumably hopes to lure, but Sharman was anxious they should not be dominant.

Unfortunately, during the live coverage on day one, Graham Thorpe looked a good - all right, a bloody obvious - candidate for lbw while padding up. But there was no red line to help us decide. There is a difference between not showing off all your toys at once and not keeping the viewer informed. We await the day when the red line, the snickometer and the analyst are all required instantaneously for the close bat-pad call. But there is a danger of being mean about this and for live broadcasting it was assured stuff.

The words, as they always have been in the reporting of cricket, were important and here they failed us slightly. Channel 4 have hired Mark Nicholas as the presenter, Richie Benaud as chief commentator and assorted young bucks eager to show off their knowledge. Nicholas is a model of calm, studied articulacy and has it in him to be a terrific presenter but he also has it it in him to be as smooth as a snake oil salesman; he could also have come up with something much sharper than "the Agony and the Ecstasy" by way of opening day two. There is a thin dividing line (probably red) between presenting a game and presenting a gameshow. Nicholas would do well to watch Whiteley.

Benaud is still the prince of commentators. The wry observations and the characteristic non sequiturs were all in place. For a moment you might have thought you were back with the BBC, so familiar was it, but hold on, was Richie, or Rich, as Markie liked to call him, not speaking more often than he had down the years?

The other commentators, whatever the claims of Sharman, were all so much apprentice filler. They described the game both when it needed it and when it did not and were not entirely useless in their pursuit to interest the uninterested. But they had eyes only for the game and nothing beyond it. There was nary a joke and while they rightly eschewed the all- pals- together stuff of Sky (which is because they are all pals together), they seemed to be afraid of having a laugh. Nor, sadly, was there anybody with any poetry in their soul. There was no lyricism in sight.

Then there was Sybil Ruscoe, the roving reporter, whom they have no idea how to deploy yet. Presumably Markie will soon be referring to her as Sybs. But at least it was Ruscoe who brought one of the few laughs. She interviewed Gavin Hastings, Scotland's former rugby captain, who talked about his country's performance in the World Cup. "For me it's nice to venture south to see how it's done properly." He will have to go much further south to see that.