Bowling over the viewers: Behind the scenes of televised cricket
From veteran voices to modern techies, Brian Viner goes behind the scenes to meet the team that puts England cricket on screen
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Tuesday 18 September 2012
David Lloyd's unvarnished Accrington accent is one of the joys of watching cricket on Sky Sports. His voice is the sound that black pudding would make if it could speak, just as Michael Holding's is the sound that callaloo would make, but on the morning of 5 September at Trent Bridge only one of these titans of the commentary box was projecting any noise.
"Bumble" woke up almost completely silenced by laryngitis, and although he gamely reported for duty, the producer of the day's coverage of the fifth one-day international between England and South Africa, a genial Scotsman called Bryan Henderson, sent him home.
This meant a swift rejigging of the commentating schedule, although it was only a minor headache for Henderson. When your "comms" team includes Holding, Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain, Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Shaun Pollock and David Gower, even Bumble is dispensable.
But Henderson, in the way of a Ryder Cup captain, still had to consider where and how to place his pairings. Holding is "an outstanding lead commentator", while Warne "only does colour". And some pairings produce easy banter, while others generate sparks. Hussain and Warne exemplify the latter, which is why Henderson likes to put them together; Botham and Warne the former.
During their stint during the game, the great Aussie and the mighty Englishman had a lively chat, mostly off-mic, about the best places to eat on the Melbourne waterfront. "Donovan's is Elizabeth's favourite," said Warne, proudly, of his fiancée, Liz Hurley.
Gower usually does less time in the commentary box than the others because he doubles as the show's anchorman. He arrived for the day-nighter, beginning at 2pm, at 11.45am, having broken the long drive from his home in Hampshire by staying with friends the night before.
Holding, who had done a Q&A at Whaley Bridge Bowling Club in Derbyshire the evening before, arrived at noon. The "talent", by their own cheerful admission, have it easy. For veteran production manager Roger Chambers, preparation for the broadcast had begun two days prior on Monday afternoon, when the vast production trucks rolled up to Sky's pitch at the back of the Fox Road stand.
Stepping behind the scenes of a day's international cricket broadcast is to be overwhelmed by numbers, especially for those of us who grew up watching televised cricket in the days of only a single camera at one end of the ground. Sky had 30 cameras at Trent Bridge, and, excluding commentators, 85 personnel either on staff or working for contracted companies such as Hawk-Eye. It was Chambers' job to oversee the whole shebang. "I don't make programmes but I make them work," he said.
The man who more than anyone did make the programme was director Mark Lynch, who sat in the scanner truck from morning until night, surveying a bank of 80 screens and, almost every second of the long day, determining which shot to use next from a staggering array of options. These included the images collected by the neighbouring VT truck, where every dramatic incident in the match was replayed and deconstructed from every conceivable angle.
To an onlooker who needs only a pad and a pen to go about his business, it was bewildering, and yet easy to see why those who work with "Lynchy" consider him the best in the business. Certainly, he ran the operation as unflappably and authoritatively as Captain Kirk ever ran the Starship Enterprise. But then, like Kirk, he knows he can rely on his crew. Lynch's Lieutenant Uhura is Heather Holmes, the production assistant who sits to his left and is responsible for all the timings. I know now that Gower's characteristically calm delivery is measured in more ways than one, because, during his introduction from the outfield, Heather's precise countdown from 15, cueing his switch to the studio, loomed loud in his earpiece. He must sometimes hear it in his sleep.
The studio and the adjacent commentary box at Trent Bridge are more than a little cramped, certainly by comparison with the spaciousness at Durham (along with Galle the best cricket ground in the world to broadcast from, according to Henderson). There wasn't room to swing a bat once the two commentators had taken their places alongside Sky's statistician, Richard Isaacs.
By the time the transmission began, there was nothing Isaacs didn't know about previous meetings between England and South Africa at Trent Bridge, which made the commentators, as Pollock happily acknowledged to me, look far more clued-up than they actually were. I asked the splendid Isaacs if he had a favourite stat from the hundreds he had spent the previous few days assembling in a sturdy red folder. "Yes," he said. "This is the 50th one-day international between these two sides, but there is only one other ODI fixture involving the top cricketing nations that hasn't reached that mark, and that's between the West Indies and Sri Lanka." Enjoyably abstruse, nerdishly interesting, it was the perfect statistician's stat.
Meanwhile, out in the middle, the wretched form of Ravi Bopara had just taken a turn for the worse, with a second-ball duck. By the time he had trudged back to the pavilion, removed his pads, and taken up a glum vigil over the rest of the proceedings, one of Sky's cameramen, Riaan on camera 10, had him centre-frame. For Lynch, it was the perfect backdrop to Atherton and Gower talking about Bopara being miserably out of nick: the man himself looking like he'd just accidentally set fire to a winning Lottery ticket. It was the sort of shot that we now take entirely for granted in TV cricket coverage, and yet for all that, just one of many tiny dividends from a huge investment of time, technology, money and expertise, all of which add up to an impressive whole.
Sky should not take all the credit for this. The benchmark of excellence was set decades ago by the BBC – Gower admits finding a style of his own by studying the "cool eloquence" of Tony Lewis and the "genius that is [Richie] Benaud" – and Channel 4's coverage at the end of the 1990s was genuinely pioneering. But Sky has moved things on, and it's worth reminding ourselves occasionally that the unseen 85 do their jobs at least as well as the ex-players on-screen do theirs.
That they also work harder is beyond debate. After South Africa's comfortable victory at Trent Bridge, the trucks rumbled up to Durham for the start of the three-match Twenty20 series. Botham and Gower were given the series off, meaning that the one-day international at Trent Bridge was their last gig until November's tour of India. "It's similar to playing in that, after talking about the same people all summer, it's nice to have a change of topic for a while," Gower told me. "But I don't want to make the job sound onerous. That would be a lie."
The ICC World Twenty20, starting today, is part of the year-round cricket coverage live on Sky Sports HD and is also available on the move via Sky Go
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