Soul Limbo

10th July 2020

It is no surprise that it has been the elite sports events that have been the first back on to our television screens as the coronavirus lockdown conditions are eased. The satellite broadcasters require new and live “content” to fill their airtime – there are limits to the reliance on old footage for even the most dedicated sports enthusiast – whilst the sports authorities urgently need to fulfil their part of the various bargains that generate millions (or, in the case of soccer, billions) of pounds for their coffers. In addition, there is a range of other interests to satisfy, including advertisers and bookmakers not to mention those who actually play or watch sport.

In Britain, the resumption of live broadcasting effectively began at the end of May with the National Rugby League in Australia and this was quickly followed by the top-level football leagues in Europe, beginning with the Bundesliga and the Premier League. The two codes of domestic rugby are scheduled to resume next month with matches in the Super League (rugby league) and Premiership Rugby and PRO14 (rugby union). All these are behind closed doors as far as live spectators are concerned, of course; we look on with both admiration and envy at the apparent success in dealing with the virus in New Zealand, where the re-introduction of the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition has been accompanied by large crowds in the stadiums.

I shall focus here on the BBC’s television coverage of the test match series between England and the West Indies, which began on Wednesday in Southampton. This constitutes a daily hour-long highlights package, as the full day’s play remains pay-for-view. It is the BBC’s first such coverage for over 20 years, so there is an intriguing comparison to be made with the (generally excellent) highlights programmes that have been provided during that period by Channel 4 and Channel 5. In terms of the cricket itself, there is a further point of interest in terms of the perceived effect (as seen through the filter of television) on this highest form of the game – the test match – of the absence of spectators in the ground. After two days, what are the initial conclusions?

For those of us with long(ish) memories, the BBC’s presentation got off to a good start as Booker T and the MGs’ classic Soul Limbo was retained as the opening theme tune: we were temporarily transported back to the days of Richie Benaud and Jim Laker. I also thought that Isa Guha was a personable and engaging presenter, though she has a high standard to maintain in filling Mark Nicholas’s shoes.

The historical references were noted, but not overplayed. We learned that Ben Stokes was the 81st person to captain the England cricket team, whilst Michael Vaughan reported that England’s top 4 batting line-up was its least experienced since 1989. (Separately, on the online White Rose Forum of Yorkshire CCC members and supporters, it was of greater relevance that, with Joe Root’s absence, the county was not providing a member of the England team for the first time since 2012. There was some consolation, however, in that the two umpires were Richard Illingworth and Richard Kettleborough – natives of Bradford and Sheffield, respectively – from the ICC’s elite international panel).

The BBC’s coverage was less insightful in terms of the pre- and post-match interviews with the players taking part, which contained the rollcall of bland clichés to which we have now become accustomed; likewise the short recorded interviews that were inserted into the action, but didn’t really add anything.

But I must inevitably come back to Benaud, whose general approach to broadcasting has been usually summarised as: “Don’t speak unless you can add to the picture.” Regrettably, it is a dictum almost universally forgotten by modern-day television commentators across all sports, so it was no surprise that its absence also applied here. Sometimes – if only for two or three consecutive deliveries – the pictures really can speak for themselves.

This being England in July, the inevitable happened and – after the months of anticipation for the resumption of cricket in the country – rain truncated the first day’s play to 17 overs. After England lost a wicket in the second over, Rory Burns and Joe Denly did well to negotiate some threatening bowling from the West Indies seam attack and take the score to 35 before the elements finally closed in at tea-time. I sensed that this was, indeed, “proper” test match cricket: a hard-fought contest between bat and ball.

There was more of the same on the second day. Although 7 of England’s top 8 batsmen reached double figures, none made 50 and the team limped to a total of just over 200. After the hostile Shannon Gabriel had taken the first three wickets, the West Indies’ impressive captain Jason Holder took centre stage, his analysis of 6 for 42 being a career best. At 57 for 1 at the close of the second day, the West Indies were perhaps the better placed, but – weather permitting – a close encounter is in prospect for the remainder of the game.

The sense of watching a competitive test match is aided, I think, in that, for the most part, the camera’s view is predominantly focused on that area of the pitch running from the final part of the bowler’s run-up through to the wicket-keeper; that there are no spectators in the stands does not register until the ball is hit off the square. (An aside: I quite like the fact that, when the ball is hit to the boundary, the fielder has to go and collect it himself – and any club cricketer would probably have to do – rather than wait for a member of the ground-staff to throw it back).

At the same time, the unprecedented circumstances in which the match is taking place dominated the highlights coverage: when Isa Guha interviewed Michael Vaughan and Carlos Brathwaite before play started on the first day, they seemed to be standing ten feet apart, let alone six; the ground-staff running on and off the field with the covers were properly attired in their face masks; there was a silence held before the game in memory of the victims of the virus (and also, in tribute to the great West Indies batsman, Everton Weekes, who died last week at the age of 95); and – the dominant news item – the players and coaching staff of both teams were shown “taking the knee” before the match began, with the West Indians also wearing single black gloves in upraised fists.

These are complex and rapidly changing times. And, as usual, the observers of sport also see the wider society around them – a recurrent theme in these occasional blogs.

Amongst all this, test match cricket has resumed. We can pick up a newspaper this morning and read the match report. But we still know that, in the conduct of our lives in general, the “old normal” has gone – and that the “new normal” (whatever that is) lies a long way across the sea. Navigating our way through the present turbulent waters to the security of that distant shore is not easy. We – all of us – need help in finding a safe passage.

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