The niche world of county cricket commentary

Mark Church commentating at the Oval

The county cricket championship is under way, which means the return of the BBC's unique ball-by-ball coverage of every single game throughout the season.

With 18 teams split between two divisions, a total of 144 matches, six balls an over, numerous overs a day, and matches lasting for four days... well, the maths quickly gets out of hand. But that's a lot of balls - and that's not even counting T20 matches or other forms of the game.

The BBC's coverage of every single ball bowled in county cricket was introduced last year - until that only about half of matches had been covered - to a warm response, from what is a relatively niche audience.

Dave Callaghan Veteran commentator Dave Callaghan

County cricket may not be able to compete with football's dominance, but that has not hindered its global reach for listeners.

"We've had them from all over," says veteran commentator Dave Callaghan, who commentates on Yorkshire's games. "We've got regulars in Iceland and also Bulgaria, lots of people from America and Australia."

"People listen in from all kinds of crazy places," confirms Charles Runcie, head of sport for English Regions. "[We've] had people listening in the South China Sea and every imaginable place you could think of."

A shout-out from one commentator during a game last year garnered responses from listeners in 43 countries.

"Cricket fans are a hardy lot, especially county fans," observes Runcie. "They will hunt out the cricket coverage and they'll consume it - not even necessarily just for their own county."

The nature of the coverage also breeds greater familiarity between the commentators, the players and the fans - something that tends to get lost as the sports get bigger.

A victory anthem

A regular "second voice" in the commentary box is just as likely to be a retired businessman in Middlesex, or a librarian in Warwickshire, as it is to be a current player in Yorkshire.

"You build a super relationship with the audience. We have one listener who is a big Yorkshire fan but moved down south some years ago," Callaghan tells Ariel. "He's a blind listener but he's a marvellous concert pianist and he will email us throughout the match - and when Yorkshire are getting close to a victory he goes onto his piano and composes a victory anthem."

Callaghan, who's been on the circuit for 32 years, even has a plaque in his living room sent from a listener in Sarasota, Florida, thanking him for his "professionalism and humour" over three decades of broadcasting.

A logistical feat

Runcie heralds the commentators as "heroes". Covering every single match is "quite a logistical feat", he says, adding that it works "because of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the commentators, who overcome a huge amount of challenges to do it".

Not all grounds have the technical broadcasting capabilities of famous venues like Lords, says Runcie. Middlesex plays this year at Merchant Taylor's School, while in the past commentators have had to broadcast from Paul Getty's private cricket ground in the middle of an Oxfordshire forest. They somehow manage to make it work in what, Runcie says, are the "most unlikely venues".

With international Test cricket regularly described as under threat from T20's more glamorous bite-size imitation, in some ways it may have seemed an odd time to expand the coverage at county level.

But last year the commentaries were listened to 700,000 times. Impressive figures for something that exists only online and is not yet available on mobiles, apps or tablets.

Chris Egerton commentating and Northants' commentator Chris Egerton enjoys an ice cream

"We need to crack that because it would double our audience," believes Runcie. "It's on the way but we're in a queue at the moment - but we'll get there."

The expanded ball-by-ball coverage proved to be something of a lucky omen for Northamptonshire, celebrating their first year of full commentary with promotion and a T20 victory.

"It's the one sport where there are many more people who follow it than are able to get to the games," says BBC Northamptonshire commentator Chris Egerton.

Even Australian player Trent Copeland - who played part of the season for Northants - was tuning in well past midnight in Sydney to follow his team's progress, recalls Egerton.

"I genuinely think it's here to stay. There's a demand for it, there is a demand from the game for it," he continues. "Our county scene provides just as vibrant cricket [as international cricket], it just needs that wider audience for it to be made more popular, and that's what we're doing on this service."


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