Cricket on 4

Monday, September 4, 2000 by

“Cricket – a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented in order to give themselves some conception of Eternity” – Lord Mancroft

The BBC had television cricket since the dawn of time, caught in some form of timewarp that left it stuck somewhere in the late ’70s. Channel 4′s coverage has updated what is in effect a very simple format to reflect the changing world since then.

It could be said that the BBC lost its “sporting crown jewels” because it was complacent and arrogant. In the case of cricket the change of pace not only caught the BBC on the hop but also the organisation that ran the game in this country as well. The lure of money is not new; World Series Cricket caused mayhem down-under in the late ’70s, but this time it was money from advertising revenue that lured the sport away from the BBC. The Corporation’s actual coverage was pretty good all told, with lengthy runs on BBC2 punctuation only by the occasional race or the news. And like F1 racing, the BBC could justifiably claim to employ the voice of the sport: however the presentation was outdated. Most of the presenters and commentators were long past their playing careers, rules had changed and technology was making inroads into how the game was being played. Left on the boundaries, they could only talk about old times and vent their frustration at us. It felt more like a gentlemen’s club; all blazers, club ties and formalities in front of the camera.

I tend to believe that cricket is the greatest thing that God ever created
on earth… certainly greater than sex, although sex isn’t too bad either.
Harold Pinter

Embarrassingly, C4 had made rather a ham fisted attempt to “sexy up” the game with regular showings of the video to the theme tune Mambo No.5. It didn’t backfire as such but it wasn’t a remarkable success either. They have since tried to develop a more inclusive image and seem to relish talking to all comers out in the cricket ground. In effect C4 hasn’t changed the essence of the coverage from its BBC beginnings, it continues to cover and commentate upon the action on the field, however it’s when there’s no play that the differences are marked. The presenters are smart, recently retired professional cricketers who have paid their dues on commentators’ breeding ground, Sky Sports. In addition they have added experience in the shape of Ritchie Benaud: once the BBC’s crowning glory. With expert analysis from all parts of the cricketing world there is a real attempt to break away from a fusty old image.

Last year Mark Nicholas – C4′s chief presenter, was slightly unpolished and unsure, leaving the intervals as an awkward element of the coverage. However as things have developed it’s clear that the edges have been smoothed and the presenters have become a much closer unit displaying a greater understanding of how each other works. There are still areas that could be improved, particularly during the opinion slots which have seen Benaud rambling somewhat adrift, waiting for someone to step in.

Before play starts there is a brief summary and tour of the ground, talking to spectators: something the BBC would never seem to countenance, being far too aloof and over-familar with those in the members’ stand. In addition there is “The Roadshow”, a veritable tom bola of events, chat and sightseeing which adds a carnival atmosphere to the proceedings. Significantly it is fronted by another BBC refugee, Sybil Roscoe.

During play there is a new innovation; a play analyst in the form of Simon Hughes. As events occur Simon will pop up with analysis on the bowlers’ deliveries, field settings and umpiring decisions. Although this is a conceit stolen from Sky, it is well suited to the sport. Such is the pace of cricket that we can lay on the stats just after the event has taken place, rather than having to wait for half time. Aside from aiding understanding it also maintains a consistent tempo within the game.

At lunch its back to the studio. The format again is analysis, and also viewers’ letters and interviews. Another new presentation concept is the introduction of a feature called “Jargon Busting”. This aims to decode some of the odder phrases and rules from the game; herein the obscure rules of Leg Before Wicket are unveiled. Great care has gone into this section, ensuring it doesn’t talk down to the viewer or get too technical. In fact, whilst dealing with viewers’ questions and comment there is no trace of smugness or superiority, just an attempt to help us understand the various aspects of the game, and to ferret out some obscure piece of trivia or answer that nagging question. It is light-hearted, yes, but not condescending.

One of the great worries for the cricket fan upon discovering that Channel 4 were now to host the game was the issue of the commercial break. In reflection this is surprising as the very nature of the sport allows adverts to be comfortably slotted in within the game. During the change of ends after an over there is a break, or after a wicket. Usually this is in the form of a short single advert which doesn’t intrude into the game. At lunch there are a couple of breaks, but on the whole these feel like natural punctuations in the proceedings, and serve to actually imbue the coverage with a tempo that was lacking in the BBC’s output (where the time between overs could drag).

As play drew to an end today there was a buzz in the commentary box; enthusiasm and respect for the game that is telling. There are few times when you will hear comments prefixed with “In my day …” or hear retold a long anecdote about a player unheard of by most and irrelevant to the action. The commentary remains focused at the point of play. As England clinched the series against the West Indies there was little triumphism or idiotic bragging. Mature commentary followed as two great bowlers of the modern game bowed out to warm affection from the crowd. Seeing a 6′ 6″ man on the verge of tears as he left the field for the last time said it all – cricket can match the passions of football.

It is fair to say that Channel 4 have fared well this year, tightening up on the positive start they made last year. If they continue to make this rate of progress in the use of technology, quality of commentary and coverage, it will become the finest sports coverage bar none.


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