1934 June 14, 2008

Seaside shuffle

When beach resorts hit upon a novel way of keeping holiday crowds up to date with the latest news from that summer's Ashes Tests

Cricket fans on the Isle of Wight keep in touch with the Test match between England and Australia at Old Trafford in July 1934 © Getty Images
These days we have grown used to ball-by-ball coverage of matches, whether it be on television, radio or, more recently, the internet. All major games are covered in this way and, unless you are out in the wilds, it is easy to find out what's happening.

As recently as a generation ago things were much harder. For a cricket-mad teenager in the mid-1970s, Test matches were on the radio and TV, but that aside, if you missed the radio round-up of all the county scores at 10pm on BBC Radio you had to wait for the following morning's newspapers to find out what was going on.

In the pre-war era, it was even more difficult for the cricket-mad. The main cities' evening newspapers carried regular updates, and for major matches many shops displayed scoreboards of varying complexity in their windows to keep passers-by informed.

The first television broadcast was of the 1938 Lord's Test, but coverage was limited to a few minutes, there were no replays of any kind, and only a few thousand wealthy individuals in the London area had sets anyway. Radio did its best to fill the gaps, but receivers were bulky and far from portable. If you left home and the family wireless, you were in the cricket wilderness.

It was even worse for people unlucky enough to be going on holiday. Most of the UK's population holidayed at the seaside - foreign trips were the preserve of the very rich - and so were unable to follow games.

The 1934 Ashes series was one of the most eagerly awaited. England had regained the Ashes in 1932-33 under controversial circumstances on what became known as the Bodyline tour, and people wanted to see if England could hang on to them. And they wanted to follow the battle between Don Bradman and Wally Hammond to see who really was the best batsman in the world.

Many resorts feared that their trade might be affected by people not travelling for fear of missing out on what was happening, so a number of them came up with a plan: they erected massive scoreboards on the sea-front. Great Yarmouth led the way, and Felixstowe, Southend, Margate, Ramsgate, Brighton, Hastings, Southsea, Weymouth and Folkestone soon followed. By the end of the summer Shanklin and Bognor had joined in the fun too.

In an era unsullied by anything other than most subtle sponsorship, the scoreboards were emblazoned with the logo of Johnnie Walker & Sons, the scotch producers, and many newspaper articles were quick to praise the firm for the service it provided. At least it was a sponsorship which offered something tangible to the public, and in those days there were no reports of brand police confiscating bottles of rival whisky ...

Ladies prepare for beach cricket in 1934 © Getty Images
The scoreboards themselves were more like those used abroad than the ones familiar to English grounds, as players' names were displayed rather than numbers. But the level of sophistication went far beyond that. Built into the scoreboard was a basic outline of a cricket field and stumps. A white disc was used to represent the ball, and that was moved around the field depending on where the ball was hit. Coloured discs were used to show who was batting (the corresponding disc was placed against the batsman's name on the main board) and bowling; it even went as far as showing who fielded each ball.

It took five fully trained men to operate each board (they took all their information from the radio) and it was reckoned that a good operator could indicate by skilful manoeuvring of the disc what kind of delivery had been bowled - googly, legspinner etc - and also display other elements such as batsmen running between the wickets.

Eyewitnesses reported that the crowds - and in some places they numbered in the thousands - joined in as if they were actually at the ground, cheering wickets and boundaries, and politely clapping singles and maiden overs.

Seventy years later, and we live in a far more sophisticated world. But once the BSkyB monopoly on TV coverage kicks in, most of us away from a computer will be reliant on the vagaries of the BBC's long-wave service to keep up to date. Perhaps it's time for a call to Johnnie Walker ...

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The Cricketer June 1934