England v New Zealand, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, 1st day June 10, 2004

The boys behind the blimp

Roving Reporter by Emma John at Trent Bridge

The blimp is a vapid creature. It hovers 500 feet about the ground, returning to its roost only at evening time. Oblivious to the roars that issue from directly beneath it, as well as the airborne predators that pass overhead, it hangs around in the sky trying to attract potential mates with bright, self-advertising livery. This has never been known to work.

Not a species that would survive long in the wild, then. But tamed, they have their uses. Dave Whitlock has been strapping cameras to their underbellies for four years. It's he you have to thank for the bird's-eye views of Trent Bridge that have Richie Benaud intoning, "It's a bee-you-utiful day here in Nottingham." Today he has his blimp tethered behind the pavilion, a couple of streets away in a small park. The park has been promoted to a car park for the duration of the Test, and two dayglo attendants guard the entrance, although they don't demand any money simply to come and stare.

The blimp's hefty rig sits alone stage centre, playing to an audience of Volvos and Fiats. Whitlock himself sits in the nearby trailer with camera operator Liam. While Liam keeps one eye on Channel 4 and another on the picture feeding from the blimp's camera, Whitlock watches an incomprehensible selection of multi-coloured dials on his computer screen.

The four-man team arrived at the ground yesterday to set up the rig. They arrive at 8am to launch the blimp each morning, and it takes half-an-hour for it to reach its zenith. "It can reach 1000 feet," says Whitlock, "but Nottingham aerodrome is close by so we only have permission to take it to 500." Outside the trailer is a trolley containing 35 brown helium canisters - all standing at five feet tall. This blimp certainly seems a hungry beast.

As Liam jiggles his joysticks, Whitlock explains that the blimp always faces into the wind, hence keeping the camera steady. Once the blimp is in the air, he says, there's little that can go wrong - it's just getting it up there that can occasionally cause trouble. "The weather's the main concern," he says. "If it's low cloud - if the cloud base is 1500 feet or lower - or the wind is more than 40 knots, we can't fly it. And it can get a bit hectic if ropes get caught when we're trying to launch it. It's a big heavy camera that's strapped to it, so you have to watch out for that flying around your head."

Although there are only two people in the control room, it is filled with voices. The talkback radio that links them with the TV production team natters incessantly and makes the small trailer seem even more confined. Stuck in a tiny dark room for five days, with only each other and the director's instructions for company, don't they get cabin fever? "Yes, we get a bit stir-crazy by the end of the Test," says Whitlock. "At least this truck has air-conditioning though. Some don't."

Emma John is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer.