Channel 4's last hours of Test match coverage are the sweetest and most bitter - England beat Australia, cricket goes to Sky. Emma John witnesses the final, emotional moments
Is six years a long time in television? It certainly seems that way as C4 broadcast their final Test at The Oval. The airwaves practically fog over with nostalgia in the final Cricket Show. In the lunch breaks C4 offers not one but two compilations of its own top moments. There is also a 20-minute tribute to Richie. You half expect Michael Aspel to appear with a big red book. This is the last live game for Sunset+Vine, the production company that has put together C4's cricket coverage since 1999. But there is no navel-gazing in the commentary box. Tony Greig and Michael Slater are picking over Justin Langer's premeditated attack on Ashley Giles - and they are not even on air. Richie Benaud works at a laptop in the corner. Gary Franses, the S+V boss who has directed the programme since it began, wears his usual half-smile as he leans on his elbows and surveys events on a monitor. The mood is low-key but that could be the weather. Mark Nicholas has just sat down at the mic when the rain starts. "It was brief but emotional," he jokes as he heads for the studio.
Mid-afternoon Mike Atherton slips into an empty box two doors down and crashes out on the floor. "We're all shattered," explains Franses' assistant Francesca Watson. "I think we've been working so hard we haven't really had time to think about this being our last Test." Watson, like most, has worked 12-hour days during the season. With the games compressed into a tight schedule, and the last Test not finishing until mid-September, it has been unusually intense. She has not had a break since April and will not get one now: on Friday she is off to Barcelona to film S+V's Late Night Poker. "We usually all go away at the end of September anyway, so there's a bit of you that doesn't believe you won't be coming back."
People are simply too busy to be wistful. Atherton's partner Isabel is expecting a baby any day ("I don't think it'll pop out till the end of the game," he says confidently). Slater has a promotional tour round Australia on the horizon, for his autobiography, and is "ready to go home". So is Greig. His two young children, who have been with him throughout this trip, need to get back to school; they are all booked on an early Tuesday morning flight. There is only one problem: C4's grand farewell party at the ITN studios in central London is on Monday night. "I'll have to start drinking early," he says.
Nicholas seems abandoned, restless, like the boarding-school boy who hates going home for the holidays. His ever-increasing profile as C4's anchor has also become his ticket to exile. On screen his smile is professionally maintained. But he admits that "there are moments when the mind drifts and you feel sad". He sits down morosely and shuffles through the press cuttings left on the side - mostly profiles of Richie on his retirement - then points to a huge pile of post and items waiting to be signed. "Richie sent out a bin bag full yesterday." The unstated message is clear: the people love C4. But he is not anti-Sky; he is just going to miss his job. "We absolutely love what we do. We come in every day excited about it."
It is funny to think that, when C4 started broadcasting cricket, they were with a few exceptions a bunch of rookies. Athers, Slats and Yozzer (Simon Hughes) may have jumped from one dressing room to the other complete with nicknames, but they still had to prove themselves. Slater was still playing when he joined the team in 2000. "I remember being more nervous than I would feel opening the batting for my country. I was petrified to say a word because I didn't want to mess it up." Sitting next to old hands like Richie didn't help. "I wanted to impress the people sitting around me more than anything. And I couldn't get over how many people there were in the box."
Atherton, too, was out of his depth. "The very first link I did was to C4's early morning programme RI:SE and I was talking to the monitor, not the camera. That was an early indication that I didn't have a clue what to do." Even into his fourth year of broadcasting, he has had to keep learning. "In the first presentation I did in the absence of Dermot Reeve I asked Stephen Fleming a question and forgot to take the microphone over to his mouth. He had to physically drag it over. That was slightly embarrassing."
It was even tougher for Hughes who, when he first crept into his dark trailer, had no understanding of the technology he would be operating. "In the early days it was Simon's naivety that made it work," says Damian Dexter, a video expert and The Analyst's unseen other half. "Other more experienced people would have said no to what he was being asked to do but he just got on with it." Dexter has been with S+V since the beginning and missed only two days' play, when his children were born. "In that time the technology has improved at the same rate as the England side. Like them it's become more reliable."
In the replay van where they sit, alongside dozens of others watching and editing videotape, the atmosphere is noisily upbeat. When a runner brings one of the editors his lunch he jokes: "Your future is secure. Until Monday anyway." For one thing there is an overwhelming feeling that England are going to win the Ashes, despite Australia having had the upper hand for the last three days. Hughes is so certain that a small replica urn sits on the side of his desk in readiness. "I'm looking forward to the moment I can hold it up to the camera and say we have these back," he says.
"We thought England had a much better chance than the rest of the country were giving them, from early on. I'm not trying to say I'm clairvoyant but I sent C4's director of television an email before the deal was done with Sky. I don't think C4 focused on how good England were becoming as a team. I said it seems strange you're not going to bid more money bearing in mind they they've a good chance of getting the Ashes back."
Many of the crew say the Ashes has been the best sporting event they have ever worked on. But there is also a wide sense of dismay that the S+V era is coming to an end. It is a genuine compliment, since most of the crew are freelancers who will soon be going wherever the work is - in most cases to Sky. One says he is "absolutely gutted" about the ECB's decision. "S+V are the best people I've ever worked for. It's a very friendly atmosphere. They're so confident about what they're doing that everyone's relaxed."
That is a sentiment echoed throughout the trucks and trailers. Franses is highly praised for his approachability and for fostering a feeling of family. "They're wonderful to work for," says Dexter. "They will listen to anybody, from a runner to a VT operator, which is unusual in this business." It is an indication of the affection felt for the company that even employees of long ago are driving the length of the country to be at Monday's party.
Dexter, like many contracted to S+V, will move on to other sports. And for some, the cricket will not end with this game. Chris Chaundler, who produces The Cricket Show, still has Ashes DVDs to rush-release - and there may, of course, be an England victory parade to cover. "There's so much to do, I'll be working for another two months. After that I think I'll take a long holiday." But for some the issue of employment is more vexed. C4's scorer Jo King may have to consider a new career. She will cover the Pakistan tour for BBC's Test Match Special but Sky have their own people and, as she is well aware, "there aren't that many jobs for scorers". Even the big names have found themselves in a crowded marketplace. "I'll have to be quite proactive," says Slater. "You've got to stay on people's radar."
So will this be the moment Hughes escapes his van? "I'm realistic enough to know that's not going to happen," he says, admitting that the "nirvana" of a commentator's berth is still some way away. "I've got used to playing on all the tools and resources, the cameras and the graphics. I'd feel a bit naked in the commentary box in a way."
Ask him the best thing about working for C4 and his reply is unhesitating. "Richie. I love his enthusiasm. Anything I do he always says something encouraging." As C4's fledglings have found their feathers, it is Richie who has helped groom them. "I think most of us follow the Benaud school of commentary," agrees Atherton, "which is to keep your mouth shut unless you've got something to add to the pictures."
It is not just the commentators who pay their tributes to the abdicating king of commentary. Shane Warne jogs over to the box to shake Richie's hand and at tea on the final day the crowd salute him so wildly that he is forced to give a quasi-royal appearance at the front of the commentary box.
There is nothing so sentimental for Geoffrey Boycott who, even before Michael Vaughan lifts the Ashes, has already left the ground to catch a plane to Harare, where he is covering a Zimbabwe game. For Nicholas the end seems more forlorn. As all eyes follow England on their victory lap, he stands alone on the podium, a camera still trained upon him but with nothing left to say. By 8pm the ground is dark, illuminated only by the lights in the Bedser stand where the England team still celebrate. The party has already begun over in Holborn but, while C4 bigwigs toast their own ratings, the crew are still on site, de-rigging. Franses sits in his familiar position, his chin resting on his hand, savouring the day's moments as the highlights roll on his tiny monitor.
People are clearing up all around them, some already in their party clothes. Eventually even Franses' monitor is hauled away. There is a general procrastination, an unwillingness to be the first to leave. Visitors pop in from neighbouring boxes to say their goodbyes: Jonathan Agnew, then the TMS producer Shilpa Patel, who gives Franses a hug. It is the last broadcast and, despite his stoic smile, it is beginning to show. Roll credits. Mambo No. 5 to fade.
This article was first published in the November 2005 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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