The dawn of television coverage

Television has been covering matches for almost 70 years, and the first broadcast was at Lord's in June, 1938

Martin Williamson

August 5, 2005

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A television camera on top of the old Tavern Hotel during the 1938 Lord's Test © Getty Images
In this day and age we expect to be able to watch cricket, day or night, all throughout the year. And though wall-to-wall coverage is a relatively new phenomenon, television has been covering matches for almost 70 years.

The first national service in the world was launched, with some significant hiccups, in England in November 1936. Receivers were prohibitively expensive (around £3000 at today's prices) and scarce, two rival systems were in competition, and there was only one transmitter, at Alexandra Palace in north London. As with many things, it was London or nothing.

By 1938 the technology existed for outside broadcasts to be undertaken, although these were again limited to within the London area, and in that spring the first live football match (England v Scotland from Wembley) was broadcast, as was the Boat Race and then Wimbledon. The Lord's Test, that June, was a natural progression.

Negotiations with the MCC were cordial - the BBC had already established a good relationship with the club - and a commentary position was erected at the Nursery End, between the Free Seats (now the Edrich Stand) and the old Mound Stand. There were three cameras, two at the Nursery End - one on the bowler and one the batsman - and a third on top of the old Tavern Hotel for general atmospheric shots.

Teddy Wakelam commentating for the radio at Lord's in 1935 © Getty Images
Teddy Wakelam was chosen as the commentator. A pioneer of commentating, he made his cricketing broadcast debut in the Middlesex v Surrey match in August 1927, three months after the service started, and since 1935 had been the voice of cricket on BBC radio. In January 1927, he had commentated on England v Wales at Twickenham, the first blow-by-blow broadcast of any sporting clash. He was an expert at a number of sports, and at Wimbledon in the mid-1930s had even continued unruffled despite accidentally setting fire to his papers. Wakeham was very much on his own at Lord's, with no summariser and no scorer (BBC radio introduced one for the first time that summer).

The BBC hardly gave the innovative idea much promotion, warranting a few lines in the Radio Times. Coverage was from the start of play at 11.30 through to 12.30; from 2.30 through to tea at 3.30; and then from 3.50 to 5.00pm. So successful was the broadcast deemed to be that an extra programme was slotted in from 6.15pm through to the close 15 minutes later, "to enable City workers to see the match in their own home."

The transmission was markedly different from anything seen today. Aside from being in black and white, there were no replays of any kind and no highlights packages. But, nevertheless, it brought live cricket into people's homes.

It is not known how many people actually watched (or "looked in" to use the terminology of the day). There were only an estimated 7000 sets sold at the time, and the signal was only receivable within about 20 miles of Alexandra Palace.

Most people had not even seen a television. My father, at the time a schoolboy in Gillingham, Kent, recalls being invited to watch the flickering pictures on one of two sets in the town's electrical shop which was owned by one of his friends. He had never seen television before. As they marvelled at the pictures in the back of the store, a large crowd gathered on the pavement outside to watch the second set which had been placed in the shop window. The local police ended the fun when they dispersed the gathering, claiming it was causing an obstruction.

The TV commentary position at Lord's, which was also home to two of the three cameras in use © Getty Images
But despite the police's reservation, the newspapers loved it.

"Test cricket was the delight of viewers," enthused The Times. "It is a very happy thing to be one with the Test crowd in your own home, and to see the batsmen sending the ball to the boundary and to hear the roar of the crowd. At times the viewer must have felt himself on the pitch."

The Daily Telegraph was equally excited. "The TV cameras were swung smoothly about the field so that every detail of the play could be followed ... a striking example of the advance in television and the improvement in the receiving apparatus."

All five days of the Test were shown, and the experiment was repeated later in the summer at The Oval, where Len Hutton scored his record-breaking 364.

In 1939 both London Tests against West Indies were broadcast, but the BBC's fledgling television service was shut down at the outbreak of war less than a month after the Oval Test for fear that the Germans might use the signal to guide their airplanes. The next cricket was not seen on television until the Lord's Test against India in June 1946.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

Ball By Ball - Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Grafton, 1990)

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.
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