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More than meets the Sky

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

Jenny Roesler
Jenny Thompson

Watch the camera ... but which one? © BSkyB Broadcasting
"I don't get nervous," announces David Lloyd as he takes his place in Sky's Third Man chair for the day. But the people behind the scenes do, like producer Barney Francis: "And it's worse at a weekend," he says, "As that's when more are watching."
Jokes lighten the mood. "Two strokemakers to two blockers," quips Nasser Hussain as he and Mike Atherton exchange places in the commentators' chairs with Aravinda de Silva and David Gower. When they're not doing their half-hour stints at the mic, Hussain explains, the presenters hover at the back of the box. Or they retire to the makeshift lounge, which is in reality an empty studio, and turn on the cricket, "if Beefy isn't watching the golf."
Some, though, have no such luxuries. Francis, for one, is on guard from the opening credits right through to closing. So too are four other production crew who work among the stars, unseen and unsung - but no less important. There's Steve, who feeds ball-by-ball information to the computer, Rich who feed stats to the commentators and the runners David and Alex, who constantly feed everyone. And don't forget all the other crew around the ground who are feeding in replays and graphics all day long.
Follow 300 or so yards of the 15 kilometres of the required cable and you get to the compound of 12 trucks, some of which concertina outwards like an inverse Tardis. Inside one of these dark cabins, eyeball-scorching brightness emanates from the 84 monitors splaying a rainbow of camera angles, Hawk-Eye and stats. Some are intriguingly named - Magic, Snick, Fruit. "Fly in the fish," calls the director Mark Lynch mysteriously. That'll be the fish-eye camera, which provides a landscape arced vision of the ground, over which the team-card graphic is added.
Lynch has never yet missed a ball, thanks in part to Ginnie, the PA, who among other things checks there are enough ad breaks per hour and reminds Lynch to cut back to the live action. Manny, the vision mixer, sits on Lynch's right. Behind them is Roger, the production manager, who explains: "I don't make programmes, I just make them work." His task list - book hotels, organize equipment, sort out maps, to name a few - is exhaustive and exhausting, but he is tireless, and remarkably cheery.
In one of the extended wings of the truck sits Allan, the inventor and operator of the Snickometer. The Hawk-Eye team have a room to themselves as do the graphics team. It's thanks to them that Lloyd can pretend to be a bona fide weatherman, a task he relishes even if there's the occasional bumble. The commentators laugh when he points in two opposite places for west: John Kettley he ain't. But does it trouble him? Unlikely. "It's a big area is west!" Lloyd cries. "Especially in this wind. West moves about!"
In yet another darkened booth are more furrowed brows and more shiny monitors - the VT (videotape) unit - where ten people are dedicated all day every day to the pursuit of the perfect replay to offer to James Lawson, the replay co-ordinator. "Celebs on white," shouts someone suddenly, white being a certain camera angle - each angle has a specific colour. "High-fives on blue," chimes another. "You've got yellow there, Laws." A chink of natural light peeps in as Mike Atherton pops in to talk to Tiny, a man who is anything but, about shots for an upcoming package.
It's a frenetic environment so I leave them to it and bounce down the steps, bumping into the floor manager, Alex, whose job is to liaise with players, teams, umpires. She's just co-ordinated the toss with the people, plus some of the 29 cameras and sound. She's super-organised, and she has to be. "The busy parts are the beginning, middle and end," she says - which is just about all day, then. And it is: nobody of the 85-strong OB (outside broadcast) crew stops.

One of the banks and banks of monitors © BSkyB Broadcasting
So think of them next time you tune in. Think too of the 30-strong team back in Osterley, plus the transmission team, the audio people and the subtitlers. And the team is just getting bigger. Since winning the rights, the full-time team has added 13 new production staff; the rights may not be popular but you can't deny the heat, soul and energy that crackles behind the scenes, even into the final session of the day.
"Let's liven things up with a bit of Willow and Stumpy!" calls Francis, as the close beckons. Raised eyebrows meet his suggestion. "I have realised they're not everyone's cup of tea," he says later, "but they're high quality animations and we expect that people who do know about cricket will appreciate they're aimed at children and that it's not meant to patronize them."
The Third Man has gone down better with the public. Francis realised that Sky had to emulate Channel 4's Analyst in some way, but wanted to dispense with Simon Hughes' truck and to use one of the existing presenting team, too. So the duty falls to one of Holding ("to focus on bowling"), Hussain ("he's technical and gritty"), Atherton ("he gives an overview") and Lloyd ("fun" - what else?) David Gower anchors the studio sessions while Ian Botham is used in the studio, too, and provides pitch reports.
Francis is, rightly, happy with his line-up and says he isn't thinking long-term about who of the current England crop would make decent presenters. "These guys have to play cricket at the moment." Nevertheless, at every press conference he attends, Francis can't help but notice who is cogent and throughout the day's broadcasting he appraises the players who come up for interviews. "He speaks well, doesn't he?"
With nine or so hours' live TV, the potential for cock-ups is huge, but the operation is slick as you like. A ha! At last I've spotted something that's wrong - on the pinned-up rota: "Third Man - John Lloyd" it says. Surely some mistake?
No. It's a wind-up, Lloyd explains. A few weeks earlier, in a pub at Edgbaston, a fan had congratulated him on his commentary. Things were going well, he says, until his awestruck fan ended, "Keep up the good work, John." That may have brought him back to earth, but it's not such a bad life in the Sky.

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo