Updated: Feb 19
The lack of live cricket in the past three months has been boring. This word has been my overused adjective during the Covid crisis. I have no synonym for it, I continue to use it even when I know I have things I could, and perhaps should, be doing. And yet, despite my admission that I am, whisper it, bored, I must acknowledge it could be a lot worse. The reason, and given cricket fans are encouraged to grumble at any positive mention of them may be shocking, is the broadcasting of Sky Sports.
Sky are often seen as the reason for cricket's diminishing popularity. Demands for cricket to be free-to-air are many, and despite the genuine good work (and money!) the company pour into the game, they would be the most unpopular cricketing structure in England were it not for the ECB, who seem to share approval ratings with politicians. Yet without any live cricket, Sky have managed to keep me entertained during lockdown, by turning to watchalongs, virtual tests, vodcasts, and the many highlights and repeats they offer.
Rob Key, Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton and David "Bumble" Lloyd, have all regularly contributed to watchalongs and Vodcasts. The combination of Hussain's analysis, Atherton's dry wit, Bumble's nonsensical comedy with Key as the punching bag make for the best four man combination since The Beatles. Their geniune love of cricket and freindship have ensured that Sky's product has not diminished during lockdown.
The chemistry of the four was overtly evident in the most recent Vodcast. The four debated their top 10 cricketing moments on Sky, and it listened like a chat between old mates. Other Vodcast highlights have included Key and Hussain hosting James Anderson and Dale Steyn discussing all things bowling and the quartet on the podcast going over cricket and Coivd-19. These discussions manage to be informative, but also amusing given the relentless banter of the love/hate Key-Hussain relationship.
Said relationship turned competitive during the virtual test matches between Key and Hussain. Tasked with finding the best England and World XIs of their eras, the eventual two tests were played out on Sky statistician Benedict Bermange's simulator. While some found this dire, and, well, pointless, I found myself quite engaged. Refreshing Bermange's twitter to see the scorecard has proved enjoyable-if unusual, and while not the same as live cricket, has been interesting.
However, Sky's main achievement during lockdown have been the watchalongs. These have seen ball-by-ball repeats of live action, with the starring players (and commentators) discussing the events as they unfold(ed). While sound levels and internet have made sure they weren't as smooth as normal TV production, they have been refreshingly different, and the producer behind the innovation deserves similar adulation given to Ben Stokes after his double heroics last summer. Getting to watch Stuart Broad's understandable delight as he rips through the Aussies to take 8-15 is awesome, as is the despair of Stokes as he's hammered for those four sixes by Carlos Brathwaite. Stokes, given his recent success has starred on multiple occasions, almost bewildered by his success, ever the humble sportsperson. Joe Root, in his role as captain has also been seen regularly, and his relaxed, light-heartedness has shone through nicely. The beauty of these watchalongs has been seeing players, giants of the game normalised as they discuss lockdown life with a cup of tea and occasionally point out how they achieved such success as it plays alongside them.
Given the challenges to cricket and the continuous debate surrounding its future, I could easily have written this piece trashing Sky as money grabbers intent on profit, not the good of the game. And Sky has made some odd choices previously (the axing of Gower and Botham last year springs to mind), and individuals at the top of the company likely do care more about profit, their broadcasting output during this pandemic has been entertaining, insightful and fun, through their commentators ability to combine serious analysis with light-hearted laughs, the ideas of producers and the willingness of players to engage. They have made lockdown less boring, which is quite the achievement.