Sri Lanka in England, 2006 May 11, 2006

Sky fives all round

Sky's Willow and Stumpy will pitch in to help decode cricketing jargon © BSkyB broadcasting
As if it weren't bad enough that Richie Benaud's comforting tones will never soothe our ears again, today marked another day many were hoping would never happen - the beginning of home England Tests not covered on free-to-air television. But Sky did a commendable job of delivering the ball-by-ball coverage, which should silence their detractors for now. And Channel Five's first stab at highlights wasn't so bad either.

With all eyes on Sky - and with their critics watching every moment as eagerly as a Murali delivery - they bore up to the scrutiny. Their commitment to cricket, and to gimmicks, has never been in doubt, but they will need to be in tip-top condition after Channel 4 left a legacy of innovation. Sky, although being key drivers of sports coverage for years themselves, have much to do simply because they are a satellite channel.

To this end they have come up with cartoon characters Willow and Stumpy, their answer to Channel 4's jargon busters, to explain cricket's unique terminology - such as silly mid-off and the doosra - during breaks in play. Willow has an irritating upper-class accent and can be quite patronizing, but Stumpy is a bit more fun and should appeal to the children who Sky are targeting. Whether they are given as long a run as Kabir Ali before being axed, though, remains to be seen.

It's a tricky proposition for Sky to innovate without being seen to nick everyone else's ideas. Channel 4's Analyst, the slot filled by Simon Hughes, was hugely popular and this had to be overcome somehow. Nasser Hussain fills the role on Sky - rebranded as Third Man - and he fills it well, having cut his teeth with his previous analytical slot, Captain's Log. Third Man may not be light years away from the Analyst, but while Hughes operated in sympathy-inducing isolation, Hussain is allowed to sit in the commentary box with his compadres. And this works - he delivers his thoughts and then his colleagues pitch in with any additions.

Even the stalwarts of Hawk-Eye and Snicko have been given a revamp. Upgrades in equipment and technology mean that the real conditions of the pitch have now been overlaid onto the Hawk-Eye graphics, allowing the pitch to be shown deteriorating over the course of a Test. As for Snicko, improved audio means that the actual moment when the ball hits whatever it hits can be tracked much more easily - even though the sound is slowed right down it will still be crisp and should aid the third umpire a treat.

Then there's the much-trumpeted High Definition TV, which will be launched for the second Test. HD is highly impressive but it will cost an extra £10 a month and you have to upgrade your set and box. Leaving aside the technical jargon (oh, OK, it's 1080 lines, instead of 576 ... exactly) it basically means that now you can see David Lloyd's full-frontal approach in much better detail and get the full force of a Bob Willis sneer in alarming clarity. But it's not all bad news - Willis, for example, has been removed from the Test line-up and replaced with Michael Atherton, who Sky took on from Channel 4. The only hitch here is that there is currently a two-month waiting list for HDTV - so that's the Sri Lanka series out the window - and potential subscribers have to cough up the £300 the new digiboxes cost straight away.

Geoffrey Boycott was kept in the shade for much of Five's highlights - a shame © Getty Images

And now back to earth - with the terrestrial highlights. Like Sky, Five also have a big undertaking for them, but for a different reason. As the only terrestrial broadcasters, Five have the job of trying to seal the deal with a new generation of fans whose interest was pricked by the Ashes. They made a promising start - at least they scheduled the highlights for the earthly hour of 7.15pm, rather than the bizarre post-midnight slot sometimes favoured by Channel 4. The opening music was good, too.

Five chose to play it straight, skippered by the silky Mark Nicholas whose smooth shoulders bore the weight of expectation without a flap. Gone were the dreamy mood sequences of Channel 4's package, instead he talked us through the highlights in straightforward fashion, but still with a dash of his usual aplomb. Yet it's not easy to reflect the rhythms of a whole day in just 45 minutes.

Neither do you get the full flavour of the commentary team. Like Nicholas, Geoffrey Boycott and Simon Hughes make the move from Channel 4 to add some hard-hitting grit and reality to contrast with Nicholas's operatic hyperbole. But we only had snatches of him and Hughes, a shame as both are highly entertaining in their own way.

Radio listeners during the day heard some Boycott gems. He summed up Sri Lanka's bowlers thus: "The only way they'll get a wicket is if the ball hits a brick in the middle of the pitch ... it wouldn't frighten me mum, this bowling." Shame he had no room for his shots here. Neither did Hughes who, although out of his analyst truck, was mainly put in his box - another loss to the viewer.

Five haven't bothered to innovate that much, although they've brought in a winometer to sum up the state of play. It's a nice touch, and a new toy for Hughes, but unfortunately he's only allowed a voiceover so there's no Peter Snowesque hand-flapping to amuse us. The traditional scoreboard graphic, though, is kept for example.

Yet arguably they don't have much room for manoeuvre, and also this represents some consistency for the casual terrestrial viewer - if they can view it at all. Swathes of the country can't access Five as they live in areas not currently able to receive the analogue coverage. One of those affected is would-be viewer Andy Makin from the south coast who has been left with just radio coverage: "It's TMS all the way for me," he says.

And do people know they have the highlights at all? With responsibility for the future of English cricket lying at their door, you'd have expected the channel to get out the welcome bunting and make something of a fanfare for their new arrival. But, um, aside from a few ads on Five itself (surely the point was to appeal to a new audience?) and the Daily Telegraph, little seems to have been done to anoint the baby. A call to the PR department sheds no further light.

Over at Sky it's a different story - you can't move for their advertising at the moment - on TV, radio and in newspapers. There have been on-air promos, publicity, radio promos and billboard ads, including two building wrap-arounds, too. And on the Tube big posters of Freddie bear down on you, taunting the non-Sky believers. In an allround push for cricket, Sky have even started to mention ticket prices on Sky Sports News. They will also introduce Cricket AM, a stable-mate of the hugely popular Soccer AM, to run on Saturday mornings. All in all an enticing proposition.

Among all this dazzling and potentially bewildering newness, one institution continues to offer its comfy familiarity and sees no need to make any changes - good old Test Match Special. Blowers et al continue to pour forth their dulcet tones down the mics meaning their listeners, as usual, won't miss a second, a passing red bus or a cake.

It's a brave new world and one which was written off long ago. But reports of the death of English cricket have been greatly exaggerated.

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo