1927 May 12, 2007

The birth of ball-by-ball commentary

Martin Williamson on the first ball-by-ball broadcast in England, at Leyton in May 1927



Frank Gillingham: made the first ball-by-ball broadcast from Leyton © Cricinfo
Next Monday (May 14) marks the 80th anniversary of the first ball-by-ball broadcast on the BBC. In Australia, matches had been covered since 1922, with the first Test coverage coming during the Sydney Test in 1924-25. But it was only in 1927 when the BBC drew up its new charter which gave it the right to send out reporters to inform the public about major events, that the idea spread to Britain.

Lance Sieveking, who had just returned from the USA where he had been impressed by live baseball commentary, decided to experiment with cricket. The BBC had already started with coverage of a rugby international - England v Wales at Twickenham - on January 15, 1927, and soon followed with other broadcasts from the Grand National and the Boat Race.

On April 1, The Guardian announced that the BBC had proposed adding cricket to its basket of radio sports. As with most newspaper comment of the time, the reaction was lukewarm at best. The problem was that the papers regarded radio as a direct competitor and for a long time refused to publish programme schedules.

While The Guardian was dismissive, the Daily Herald was flippant, asking, with tongue firmly in cheek, whether coverage of the chess championship or billiards would not be more enthralling.

On April 25, it was announced that the Reverend Frank Gillingham, a former Essex batsman and a well-respected preacher, would be the man who would deliver the first cricket commentary from Leyton on the first day of the match between Essex and the New Zealanders. The plan was for him to be on air from 2.10pm until 2.20pm, and then for a further four five-minute bursts on the hour with a general summary at 6.45pm. In between, the London Radio Dance Band would keep listeners entertained.

Although coverage was limited, The Daily Telegraph noted that "it is difficult to see how else such a broadcast could be made thoroughly interesting". A few days later The Guardian revealed that there were plans to cut into the scheduled band music "at any period when play is specially interesting".

As the day itself loomed, the Radio Times, the BBC's own publication, described the venture as "a new departure, an experiment, and something of an adventure" while admitting that cricket was "one of the slowest games in the world" and, as such, not exactly what people would want to listen to for long. "They will not have to sit through descriptions of maiden overs and wait while the batsman send to the pavilion for his cap."

Gillingham was perched next to the secretary's office on the pavilion balcony, deliberately outside so that some of the noises of the crowd would be picked up by the one microphone.

In the game itself, Essex bowled the tourists out for 280 and reached 57 for 2 at the close. The Times, without referring to the BBC's presence, said there was "a distinctly subdued note throughout the day". Nevertheless, 337 runs, 12 wickets and no rain was a far from disastrous start.

There is no recording of the broadcasts, but newspaper reaction was, perhaps predictably, low key. The Western Daily Press described it as "deadly dull" to the general body of listeners, but the Edinburgh Evening News was a little more upbeat with its verdict of "a partial success".

The experiment must have gone down reasonably well at Broadcasting House as it quickly decided to cover more matches. Initially the plans were London-based with broadcasts limited to Lord's and The Oval - there were logistical reasons for this - but at the end of May there were short spells of commentary on the Roses match at Old Trafford and in June the Test Trial at Sheffield was added.

Lord's proved a tough nut to crack, although issues about where the commentator could sit were finally resolved in time for Pelham Warner - who was overlooked for the Leyton match as his voice was deemed "too gravely melancholic" - to cover Middlesex v Nottinghamshire on June 11. Rather than a spot in or near the pavilion, he was forced to perch on top of the Clerk of the Works office, just outside the main ground overlooking third man.

The expansion in coverage indicates that the public warmed to the idea. The press remained defensive. In June, the Daily Mail slammed the "pathetic offering". On July 6, Warner, who had quickly become the voice of London commentary - or "running comment" as the BBC termed it - was at Lord's for the third day of Oxford v Cambridge, with a car on standby should that finish to whisk him to The Oval to cover Gentlemen v Players.

July was a hectic month for Warner. Aside from those two matches, he also broadcast on Eton v Harrow and a brace of Surrey matches. At the end of the month, the Roses match at Leeds was warranted important enough for attention.

By the end of the summer, regional stations had joined in. In August, the BBC's Belfast service had coverage of the final of the local Senior Challenge Cup at the North of Ireland Cricket Club, while BBC Cardiff was at the Arms Park for Glamorgan v Somerset.

So cricket on the radio was here to stay. Sadly, Gillingham was soon gone. The end came when during a lengthy rain delay in a match at The Oval he ingeniously decide to fill in time by reading out the advertisements which surrounded the ground. In the rather puritanical and non-commercial era of Lord Reith, that was about as cardinal a sin as could be imagined and he was soon jettisoned.

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Bibliography
Ball-by-Ball - The Story Of Cricket Broadcasting Christopher Martin-Jenkins (Grafton Books, 1990)
Wisden Cricket Monthly
Various newspapers

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo