Sri Lanka in England 2006

Living the Sky life

Jenny Thompson spends a day in the commentary box with the Sky team

Nasser Hussain and Michael Holding in full flow © BSkyB Broadcasting

It's 10.28am. I'm in the deceptively small Sky commentary box at Trent Bridge. Fewer than 30 cubic metres are stuffed with seven Test legends, three production crew - and me. I am one privileged sardine.

Questions come thick and fast. "Vandort's the tall one, isn't he?" "What does Kapugedara do?" "How do you pronounce Jayawardene?" They all help each other out, with Barney Francis, the cucumber-cool producer, verifying matters calmly. And you do need to be calm around here.

Notes are shuffled, throats cleared and last-minute facts are shouted out by Rich, the stats guru who sits with the commentary team on the front row, just off camera. His information supplements the fruit-machine, a glittery screen offering all manner of facts and figures and just one of eight shiny monitors. At the back sit Francis and the graphics operator, Steve, who records where every single ball ends up throughout the day. No wonder he's hoping for a three-day Test.

It's time to go to air. "Good luck, everyone," says Francis. The opening music kicks in and then there's silence; a rare hush amid a bustling hive of work. Pre-recorded packages are played out, including Nasser Hussain's dart against the spin machine Merlyn. Gamely he came out of retirement for the feature - and now he prepares himself for the inevitable onslaught from his colleagues. "Go on, let's have a joke, how not to play spin."

They may have 34,746 Test runs, 632 wickets and 592 Test caps between them, but nobody is beyond a bit of ribbing. Hussain is usually the target. "As a player he was so heart on his sleeve," explains Francis. "Because he so easily gives it away, they know that and just rib him." But the man who captained England for five years takes it well - and gives it back, too, with punch and panache.

"It's a long day and they have to concentrate," says Francis. "Even when they're mucking about. The way they get through it is to rib each other all the time." You can say that again. As David Gower says, "It's the old'uns versus the young'uns, Ian and myself versus Nasser and Mike." Just like a Test dressing room, then - and just think what a Test line-up they'd make. "There's a lot of cross-generational banter as well as pure dressing-room banter," Gower continues. "It helps pass the time of day, really."

Do you play tricks on each other? "No, that's more Jonathan Agnew's line," says Gower. So, instead you just settle for stitching each other up when live? "Yes, that will do," he laughs. Hussain goes on to demonstrate, with an on-air dig at Lloyd. "What's going on with your tie today, David?" Lloyd fingers the lurid Donald Duck number and asks: "What's wrong with my tie?!" He grins.

It's hard not to be happy around here. With such good banter it's easy to forget you're there to do a job, as Francis explains. "It's a very fun place to work. It's very easy to get caught up in that." Yet he doesn't, and neither does anyone else - it's a slick operation. The second it's time to go live, each person clicks into gear, a seamless shift, as if getting ready to face a delivery. There are similarities to playing, says Gower. "It's a performance of sorts. You have days when things click into place and happen."

But nothing will quite match up to the buzz, or the gut-wrench, of being out in the middle. "Playing is more emotional. There's not really an equivalent of getting a hundred or of getting a duck. If I get my first word wrong at 10.30 you don't have to wait till the next morning to come back."

David Lloyd ... in one of his more demure ties © BSkyB Broadcasting
It's a great life, is this - and I have the proof: if you can tell a tree's age by its rings, you can tell who's been commentating for Sky the longest by how deep their tan is, and I put this to a very brown Botham. In a Benaud-esque touch, he can't remember the last winter he saw. He pauses to think and at last says: "It was playing football" - which means that he's since missed out on more than two decades of British winters. Way to go.

The newest boy Atherton is commensurately the palest, but there's a reason for that, Botham suggests: "Atherton's anaemic!" Ah yes, it's a constant, brilliant banter-fest all right, and there are all the nicknames under the sun. Some are self-explanatory or familiar - Bumble, Nass (or Nasty), Ath and the Cake (Beef-Cake, geddit). Then there's Lubo, for Gower. Why? "I went to a restaurant in Adelaide 237 years ago," he begins, then tails off. "It's a long story!" Mikey Holding is too cool for a nickname - Whispering Death is a bit of a mouthful here, Death would be plain wrong.

But of course the commentators are just one part of the story, the royal icing on a very rich cake. A constant reminder of this is the information which burbles through a mic from the director Mark Lynch who is in a far-off truck, busily controlling his troops in mystical terminology: "Standby 8. Roll B. Wipe B."

Francis and his gang are in constant communication with Lynch and the other crew dotted around the ground, from trucks to cameramen to floor managers. As Lloyd says, "Everybody's very conscious that we want to make it work. It's fascinating - there are teams everywhere. You just want it to work." And work it does, all right.

This is the first of a two-part series looking behind the scenes at Sky. Tune in again next week, for a tour of the trucks, and more

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo