Sheds, kippers and the odd faux pas – how the TMS team delivered commentary in unique circumstances

Venue: Galle Date: 22-26 January Time: 04:30 GMT
Coverage: Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Sounds and BBC Sport website. Live text commentary on BBC Sport website and app.

“Has Root caught him again? It’s spun out of the rough. Another brilliant catch, it’s like an action replay. Exactly the same and I don’t know what Perera was doing really to his first ball,” describes Jonathan Agnew.

“Aggers,” interrupts Phil Tufnell, “it is a replay”.

As you will have gathered if you’ve been listening to the Test Match Special commentary during the series against Sri Lanka, things are having to be done a little differently.

For the first time in the 64-year history of the programme we are commentating on England Test Matches off the television rather than live from the grounds and, as the faux pas from Aggers on Sunday demonstrates, this presents a different set of challenges.

Because of Covid restrictions, no media organisation has been allowed to travel to Sri Lanka – only the local TV company is on site – so we had to come up with an innovative solution to be able to offer live commentary.

Originally the plan was to gather the whole TMS team at BBC Sport’s MediaCity base in Salford but, as the Covid situation worsened after Christmas, it became clear we had to limit travel as much as we could and also try to reduce the number of people working in the same place.

So at 4.15am on the first morning of the series, Aggers welcomed TMS listeners from his attic at home in the Vale of Belvoir dressed in pyjamas and a dressing gown.

“I didn’t want to wake my wife up by thrashing around in the bedroom cupboard,” Jonathan told our early morning followers.

Daniel Norcross and Phil Tufnell were at least billeted to an actual commentary box at a cricket ground. Unfortunately, rather than enjoying the heat and sunshine of Sri Lanka, they were placed in the TMS commentary box at a chilly Oval in south London.

Producer Henry Moeran was on duty to make sure the technology worked and – more importantly – that the kettle was always on. Henry even brought a microwave from home so Tuffers could enjoy some warm kippers for breakfast.

Ebony Rainford-Brent was contributing from her living room and Eleanor Oldroyd was doing reports for 5 Live and the Today programme from her bedroom.

Our scorer Andy Zaltzman was rather appropriately providing key numbers from his ‘Stats shed’ at home. It actually looked like somewhere Caractacus Potts or Dr Emmett Brown would feel at home in with various strange looking contraptions among the piles of Wisdens in the background.

As he made his first contribution at 4.16am, Zaltz exclaimed ‘Stats never sleep’.

Simon Mann and Michael Vaughan were placed in MediaCity in the specially adapted room that BBC Sport has been using for what are described as ‘off tube’ commentaries.

Simon Mann was commentating in a Strictly Come Dancing-themed room at MediaCity in Salford

Completing the team was the one member of our cast actually at the ground. Former Sri Lanka all-rounder Russel Arnold is part of the TV commentary team in Galle, but as an old friend of TMS he agreed to come on and provide us with some local reconnaissance as well as a Sri Lankan perspective on play.

Finally, myself, cricket content producer Tim Peach and sound engineer Simon Kelsey were in a studio in Salford trying to knit all of this together.

Our biggest challenge was making sure our disparate sets of contributors were able to watch the action at the same time.

Commentary off television is difficult enough without a summariser being asked for a comment on a ball they haven’t even seen. We also had to sync the pictures with the sound coming from the ground so you can hear bat on ball at the same time the commentators were describing it.

Fortunately there are some VERY clever people at the BBC who have developed a system where commentators can use an app on their own computers to access the pictures and sound provided to rights holders at exactly the same time as each other.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t sleep at all wondering if we’d be able to pull it off. At 2.45am I wandered through the Salford sleet to the BBC Sport offices feeling more than a little anxious.

Would the technology work? Would any of the team actually wake up in time and, even if they did, what mood would they be in having been dragged out of bed in the early hours for this experiment?

But as we began setting things up the studio I was buoyed by members of the team cheerfully popping up on the Zoom screen we’d set up so we could feel as connected as possible.

Phil Tufnell arrives at The Oval
Phil Tufnell said he felt “like a kid at Christmas” on arrival at The Oval

Some of the things we had to worry about were a little unexpected. Aggers warned me that one of his dogs, who often joined him in his attic broadcast position, had a habit of howling uncontrollably when hearing two pieces of music.

One of those pieces was the second verse of the Scouting for Girls hit ‘She’s so lovely’, which I didn’t anticipate being an issue. The other was more problematic as Tino the cocker spaniel tends to go bonkers when he hears the TMS theme tune.

Fortunately, Tino was still fast asleep when Soul Limbo came on the radio at 4.15am.

The ground pictures appeared on everyone’s computers, all in sync, and then we added a final touch.

During the home series we decided to gently add what we called a Lord’s hum just to take the edge off the strange silence of an empty ground.

We decided this wouldn’t work for a series overseas where sounds are very different, so we painstakingly created a Galle hum made up from previous TMS broadcasts at the ground.

We are delighted it has gone so smoothly so far, but we are well aware we aren’t able to bring the full TMS winter experience.

Part of the magic of Test Match Special overseas is being able to properly convey the atmosphere at the exotic locations that England play at. Also, relying on TV pictures does severely limit the commentator.

Not only are there the perils of action replays, but you can’t see the whole field so have no idea for example if an aerial stroke is going to be caught. You can’t accurately describe the pitch conditions or weather so it’s impossible to inform listeners about prospects of play.

Also not being on site means you can’t bring the flavour of the country that can help brighten up the broadcast for those huddled under the duvet in the early hours in the UK.

We hope that as things slowly improve with the pandemic that we will be able to bring you TMS in a more traditional way, but through listener correspondence we were thrilled to hear how our efforts to get the programme on air were being appreciated.

From students finishing essays to drivers delivering Covid vaccines, we heard how we were able to bring at least a flavour of normality. I’ll leave the last word to Sandy Kremer in Woking who e-mailed us.

“As an early-waking, shielding 76-year-old grandma, it is so wonderful to have you guys to look forward to in the morning and not all that gloom and doom we are so heartily sick of. And it is hard to believe you are all over the place – The Oval, somewhere called MediaCity, a garden shed and someone’s bedroom. The chat and transition between you all is seamless. Wonderful!”

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