County cricket reporters: A special breed

Head of Sport, BBC English Regions

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Northants commentator Chris Egerton and Kent's Peter Guise multitasking at Canterbury

Charles Runcie, the BBC’s Head of Sport for English Regions, tells the story behind our coverage of county cricket on air, text and online, and introduces some of the larger-than-life characters who provide it all summer.

Two events heralded the start of this domestic cricket season.  The lovely sunny weather we’ve had has been one, prompting pleasant thoughts of long hazy summer afternoons playing or watching our national summer sport. However another has been the sad death of Richie Benaud, a titan of the sport, firstly in the Test match arena and then in the commentary box. His passing has caused many of us to reflect on and debate the art of commentary.Richie set a standard many aspire to, and in the coming months people behind microphones at cricket grounds everywhere will be trying to emulate his knowledgeable, minimalist and seemingly effortless approach to cricket commentary.

The good news is that we’ve got plenty of them on the BBC, as for the third year running we’ll have ball-by-ball commentary on every county cricket match. The prestigious County Championship, the exciting one-day competitions, fixtures against touring teams New Zealand and Australia - our reporters will reflect all the action and drama to our audiences online, on BBC Local Radio, and with the major matches also on 5 Live Sports Extra.

And there’s more good news – all these commentaries will be now available on desktop, mobile and tablet devices via the BBC Sport website, BBC Sport app and the BBC’s local news pages. They’ll be housed in one page at www.bbc.co.uk/cricket, enabling fans to scroll through our selection and pick the game of their choice to listen to. Great stuff if you’re on the move, or even watching at a ground.

Cricket commentary has a special place on the BBC, but how did we arrive at this level of service?  Our county heritage goes way back to the Fifties, where on the Home Service and Light Programme and their regional variations they allowed bursts of coverage but not for the whole day. Our BBC Local Radio stations have been covering their counties since they started up in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with coverage of Sunday League one day matches. County cricket though, with its length of day and unpredictability, was a harder nut to crack. 

The advent of online streaming suddenly meant a whole day’s play could be broadcast by a local radio station, and in 2004 Mark Church started the pioneering ball-by-ball coverage of Surrey for BBC London 94.9.  Year by year more and more counties joined up, until by 2012 about half the matches were available online. People at the BBC and cricket’s governing body the ECB then asked themselves – “why don’t we do EVERY game?”  Great idea, we said.  A new broadcast rights deal allowed for that, so once resources were agreed and commentators confirmed we started the following summer.    

Ah yes, those commentators. Our county cricket reporters are a special breed. They spend their summer criss-crossing the country, suffering motorway hold-ups, the occasional dodgy hotel meal and many late night finishes or rain-soaked days. Whether it’s commentating, doing updates and interviews for their BBC Local Radio station, writing end-of-session online comment pieces, busy on social media or even sorting out a technical hitch there’s never a dull moment.  

Since a decade ago he’s been joined by a group of characters with a love and passion for county cricket they communicate with ease and who few can equal.

  • Dave Callaghan worked as BBC Radio Leeds’ sports editor and in PR for the Rugby Football League before becoming the reporting voice of champions Yorkshire, while there’s no more passionate Durham reporter on or off the air than Martin Emmerson. 
  • Derbyshire reporter Iain O’Brien wore the black cap of New Zealand in 22 Tests with distinction, and Dave Bracegirdle made seven appearances for that cricketing powerhouse – ahem, Italy – while working in the RAF before becoming our Nottinghamshire commentator. 
  • Kevan James was an all-rounder for Hampshire throughout the Nineties.  He now follows them from the relative safety of the BBC Radio Solent commentary box.
  • Somerset’s Anthony Gibson is son of  Sixties Test Match Special commentator Alan Gibson. His own nervous commentary debut for the BBC in 1985 coincided with Sir Viv Richards bludgeoning a remarkable 322 runs in a single day against Warwickshire.
  • BBC Radio Wales/Cymru veteran Eddie Bevan has suffered a cricket ball crashing into his commentary box no less than three times in his career following Glamorgan.
  • Worcestershire commentator Dave Bradley is the joker in our pack. The love of his native county is only exceeded by his joy when he hears the chimes of the ice cream van trundling into New Road each afternoon.

Our other talented cricket broadcasters, including Scott Read, Richard Rae and Chris Egerton, have been joined by the knowledgeable and always forthright “Legside Lizzy” Ammon in 2013.  More women cricket broadcasters are surely on their way. Our commentaries also go around the world online.  At a county championship game we once asked listeners to email and let us which country they were hearing us in, but we stopped counting after we got to 43!

I recall that the slogan in the Radio Times for the very first Test Match Special on the BBC back in 1957 was "Don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all".  I hope we’ll be doing that with county cricket in 2015, with few missed catches but plenty of informed coverage and comment, plus the occasional ice cream for our reporters if they’re very lucky. I’m pretty sure Richie would approve.

Charles Runcie is BBC Head of Sport for English Regions

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