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From Botham’s beef to the Pollock pearls, TV was a joy

Peter Hayter spends a day on his sofa enthusing at the expertise of Sky’s coverage at Headingley

SKY TV’s monopoly of live coverage of English cricket may be at an end, with this winter’s Ashes already lost to BT and a commitment from the ECB to guarantee some free-to-air access to their new T20 competition.

Many have presented persuasive arguments as to the detrimental effects of denying the majority of the TV watching public free viewing of the most absorbing sporting soap opera of all ever since, back in 2005, seven million of them tuned into Channel 4 to live the moment England finally beat Australia for the first time in a thousand years.

But, whatever the future holds, a day spent watching England’s first ODI against South Africa from the living room sofa was a reminder of just what a cracking job they actually do for their viewers and for the game.

Traditionalists will never lose their queasiness for a style that embraces the disembodied voice of Shane Warne advising: “Buckle up your seats belts and enjoy the ride” nor graphics that introduce the two teams as  “two batting powerhouses” and “record breakers”, asks the questions “how high can they go?” and “how many is enough?” then answers them by declaring “the sky’s the limit.”

Indeed, it was hard to suppress a chuckle at the admittedly slim prospect of England being bowled out for 17 and the game over by the first drinks break.

But from that moment until the end of the programme half a day later, what the producer, commentators, statisticians and technicians gave us was close to a master-class in sports broadcasting.

Before the start we had already heard discussion from Sir Ian Botham over the rights and wrongs of England not allowing Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler to play in the final of the Indian Premier League, and interviews with them and Chris Woakes – “the Big Three” of England’s IPL players – including film, taken by his partner on her ‘phone, of Buttler losing his bath towel as he leapt for joy at the sight of his Mumbai Indians colleagues holding on for victory.

Shaun Pollock had questioned the wisdom of leaving out Morne Morkel; Botham had suggested England might counter the attacking threat of Quinton de Kock by opening the bowling with Moeen Ali to take the pace off the ball (as New Zealand had done with Jeetan Patel).

Our screens had been split in three with side-by-side-by-side images of South’s Africa’s Imran Tahir, the No.1 ranked bowler in ODI cricket, showing the subtle differences in his action when delivering the leg-spinner, slider and googly. The sight of Mike Atherton under attack from a ladybird had also entertained wildlife enthusiasts.

A minute’s silence for the victims of the atrocity in Manchester was treated with due reverence, the faces of Joe Root, Eoin Morgan and AB de Villiers reflecting the grief felt by all.

Then the early wicket of Jason Roy invited us back to the present and soon the first commentary pairing of David Lloyd and Michael Holding were conducting business as usual, or as usual as possible in the circumstances.

Holding, with his voice of velvet and blue skies, sympathised with Kagiso Rabada that the Headingley slope was causing him to bowl no-balls and, with the help of the side-on camera, explained young bowlers should try to “hit that front line as if you were killing a roach”.

Pictures of Yorkshire’s own Dickie Bird faded to a close-up of the clock that bears the name of the veteran umpire, called, according to Bumble, “the Dickie ticker”.

England’s raving-mad former coach was at it again later, having fun with an article in the match programme headlined Alex Hales’s Guide To The Dressing Room, and, specifically, the paragraph about Adil Rashid, as follows: “Moeen gets stuck into him the most for not being the most intellectual. One time a few guys were ordering steaks in a restaurant and, after a couple of them asked to have theirs medium, Rashid requested ‘large’.”

In the event, the comedy highlight of the day was the slow-motion replay (about 50 of them, in fact) of the punter who dived across and disappeared under the black cloth sightscreen in a brave but terrible attempt to catch a six.

Yet the mood of dressing room banter among the commentary team ticked along merrily, with Nasser Hussain the butt of running gags about his own inability to hit the ball off the square.

Off a toe-ender, Eoin Morgan still managed to send over the rope for six. Botham suggested to his co-commentator that, had he hit it, the ball would have just about made it to orthodox mid–off.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ian Ward, calm under the pressure of presenting the show and commentating too, gave us a nice insight into the thrill even seasoned international players feel when they smack one out of the park when he recalled what Adam Gilchrist described to him as  “the excitement that you know, a split-second before anyone else in the ground, even the bowler… I’ve got that one.”

The standard of analysis was excellent throughout the day. Late on, the issues arising from Stokes pulling up with a sore knee and the possible repercussions of allowing him such a long stint in the IPL were thoroughly examined.

Earlier, Atherton had highlighted South Africa’s ultimately fruitless tactic of testing Morgan with the short ball, based on him being hit on the helmet by such deliveries last summer.

Atherton was more impressed by England’s bowling at de Kock, denying him anything short to cut or pull, which led to him skying a catch off Woakes which Buttler made good ground to pouch.

That injudicious swipe also gave the techies a treat as it brought Bat Cam into play.  The sci-fi drone had been hovering above Headingley all day with little to do except present a danger to low flying aircraft. Then, suddenly, it was action stations as the ball travelled nearly as high and the camera operator was able to track its trajectory all the way up to the top of its arc and all the way down again, as it fell from the heavens, like a single huge hailstone, into the gloves of the England ‘keeper.

For my money, we could probably exist without the nerd-fest known as WASP, aka the Win and Score Predictor, on the grounds that, when a team is 50-9 chasing 400, it shouldn’t take banks of computers, teams of boffins and years of stat-munching to tell us they might not pull this one off.

And, when all the wizardry is done, where Sky excels is getting the right people talking abut the right subjects in the right way at the right time and, for that, Pollock gave us the final words, regarding the failure of South Africa’s batsmen to support their skipper in the run-chase.

“I know we talk about carefree cricket and backing yourselves,” he said, “but there is also smart cricket where you’ve got to say hold on, my responsibility, my job at this moment is to stick around with that player who is No. 1 in the world.”

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 26 2017

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