Last week BT Sport announced its lineup for the forthcoming Ashes series, the first it will broadcast. Michael Vaughan and Ricky Ponting, who were both involved in the stationâs first toe-dip in the cricketing pool a year ago, are back, along with Graeme Swann, Geoffrey Boycott, Damien Fleming, Michael Slater and Adam Gilchrist. But while the network is still fairly new to this particular game the team behind the team are no ingenues; the coverage will be produced by Sunset + Vine, which has been working on cricket since taking charge of Channel 4âs first Test broadcasts in 1999 and is currently the International Cricket Councilâs official production partner.
A few weeks before they all head off to Australia the Spin got to sit down for a chat with Matt Smith, who will anchor the coverage, and the commentator Alison Mitchell. Mitchellâs cricketing chops are well established, while Smith is more of an all-rounder, most commonly associated with football although he helmed ITVâs coverage of the Indian Premier League with aplomb.
âI played a bit as a kid, always loved it, always enjoyed working on it when I got the chance,â he says. âI worked back in my BBC times on county cricket a little bit, obviously worked on the IPL for a number of years, so I always had the odd opportunity to work on it, and always loved it. This will obviously be a much bigger stage than Iâve had to work on cricketing-wise, but thatâs great, you relish that. I think as a broadcaster you want new challenges, you want to be on your toes, because I think thatâs generally when you produce your better work. You donât want to do the same thing over and over again. Youâre better when youâre pushed to find new ways to deliver your skills.â
Mitchellâs mother comes from Adelaide, and as a child she supported Australia through the Ashes while her father and brother cheered for England. âI grew up pretty much with Ashes battle lines drawn in the living room, and before I was old enough to know any better I sort of sided with my mum, because you do, donât you, as the daughter?â she says. âWe always had great Ashes banter. Even now my Dad and my uncle in Adelaide exchange a replica Ashes urn between the two of them, depending on which country owns the Ashes. So my Dad has the urn on their mantelpiece in the living room at the moment. My parents are actually travelling out to Australia for a couple of the Test matches, so he will have to pack up the urn in bubble wrap, put it in the suitcase, get it through customs, and depending on the outcome there will be a ceremonial handing-over of the urn, probably in my uncleâs golf club or something.â
Mitchell comes to BT via Test Match Special, to which she has contributed for the last decade, and even before getting her first job was so fixated on cricket broadcasting that her university dissertation was titled The Impact of Television on the Cultural Geography of English Cricket 1995-2000. She will continue to do radio commentary during the Ashes, having been signed up by ABC. âItâs really great for me that Iâm still able to do that,â Mitchell says, âbecause I think probably BT Sport recognise that radio, and my background in that, is an important part of why Iâve got the experience that enables me to be part of their team.â
Smith replaces Greg James, the Radio 1 DJ who presented BT Sportâs first season of Antipodean cricket but has chosen to spend this British winter co-hosting Sounds Like Friday Night, the new BBC1 primetime music show that premieres this week. Smith will continue working on football until his sudden switch of continents, seasons and sports. âI donât think you flick a switch,â he says. âThereâs only so much brainpower that Iâve got, for sure, but I would always keep across whatâs happening in the world of cricket in broad terms, and then I think you spend more time on it as befits whatâs coming. My experience is that you have to kind of deal with whatâs in front of you, you have to have the ability to compartmentalise, so I suppose itâs a useful trait that you look at whatâs happening next, really.
âThatâs not to say Iâm not thinking about the Ashes right now because Iâm working on football. Iâm probably starting to juggle a little bit more than maybe I would have been six months ago. And then when the day comes, Iâd like to think that Iâm as ready as I can be. Iâm not going to be an expert, Iâve never played professional cricket so Iâm not attempting to portray that, Iâm just hoping to ask the right questions and use the expertise thatâs at my disposal.â
Last year Mitchell was the channelâs main representative on the ground, with most of the analysis taking place in a studio in London. This year the entire team will be in Australia, with Smithâs mobile studio positioned as close as possible to the action. âPart of me being out there last season was I was able to start building the relations with Cricket Australia that you want to be having as a key broadcast partner,â she says. âIn terms of us being right there at the top, or being able to take our cameras onto the pitch to look at the state of the surface, we were right in amongst it. And it means as well at the start of the dayâs play weâre out there in the middle as the teams are warming up, so weâll get that access.â
BT Sport is keeping much of its planning under wraps â the Spin was told that we might be allowed to talk to a producer in a few weeksâ time â but in brief it will offer live coverage, a 90-minute daily highlights programme and a short package of condensed super-highlights that will be made available online for free after 7pm GMT. Smith admits he âwonât miss standing beside a football pitch and shivering for seven weeks, thatâs for sureâ, but other than the prospect of 24 hours on an aeroplane next to Michael Vaughan seems genuinely excited by the whole thing. âThey first called in the summer and I said Iâd have to think about it,â he remembers. âNot for long. Maybe two or three seconds, and then I said, âYeah, absolutely.â You canât really make a bucket list of sporting events to cover because it doesnât really work like that in broadcasting terms, but if you could, this would be pretty high on it.â
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