We take live television coverage of England’s Test series in the West Indies for granted now, but it wasn’t always like that. By PHILIP BARKER
Before 1990, England might as well have been touring the dark side of the moon for all that we saw live on our screens of Test cricket in the Caribbean.
Everything changed 25 years ago, when Sky announced coverage of England’s then daunting expedition to the West Indies. The TV negotiations were handled by Mark McCormack’s International Management Group and both sides appeared delighted. West Indies administrator Steve Camacho called it “possibly the biggest thing to happen to West Indies cricket”.
England’s negotiators were equally effusive. “This represents the first positive sign that satellite companies are taking up cricket on a large scale. It can only be to the game’s overall benefit,” said Bernie Coleman of the Test and County Cricket Board. Who would have foreseen that 25 years later, only satellite television would transmit live cricket coverage in the UK?
Many seriously doubted the practicalities, but Sky pressed ahead with an international signal generated by McCormack’s television production company Trans World International and produced by Gary Franses. The matches were transmitted on Sky One; Sky Sports was not formed until 1991.
The BBC’s cricket coverage was well-known for its use of Soul Limbo as its theme tune. Sky believed that, especially for a tour in the Caribbean, they would need a musical introduction to their programming. They had the lyrics written by David Hill. Hill had been the mastermind of the TV coverage for Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and was behind innovations such as the stump cam and microphone.
By 1990, Hill was in charge of Eurosport and Sky Television, and his office in the Osterley complex was adjacent to the cricket production room. One day, a discussion on old cricket programmes turned to a memorable opening sequence from an 1980s highlights show which used sepia portraits of every Test captain from 1877 and ended when Greg Chappell’s picture magically came to life as he winked to camera.
“You’ve just given me an idea,” Hill cried, and promptly disappeared into his office. C’mon Aussie, C’mon had been an anthem for WSC, and Hill was obviously looking for an English equivalent:
“We got the heart to win this race, ’cause we got the steel of WG Grace.
“Young Lions are going to roar,” he wrote.
Part reggae, part rock, written in conjunction with Brian Wade and performed by Karimu, Young Lions somehow never caught on like Booker T and the MGs’ Soul Limbo had.
The 1990 England party had no Botham, Gower or Gatting, but it did include uncapped Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart and Keith Medlycott, and they certainly made all the right noises. Graham Gooch was the captain, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the build-up included an intensive training camp at Lilleshall. This featured a brains trust of former England players including seamer Geoff Arnold, wicketkeeper Alan Knott and, to the surprise of many, Geoffrey Boycott.
“His input is visibly immense,” wrote Alan Lee in The Times, though Boycott’s media work, in which he was required to be critical of the players did later cause problems.
Another newcomer was Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) the Sky duck. Clearly inspired by Channel Nine’s “Daddles”, an animation which accompanied every unfortunate batsman out for nought on the long walk back, it was considered crass by most British viewers. He did not last long.
And there was a possible slogan which never got beyond the TV producers’ brainstorming, either: “Cricket – Another hit on the box”, accompanied by an illustration of a batsman clutching a certain part of his anatomy.
In the end, the was little need for gimmickry, for the cricket turned out to be utterly compelling. England had not beaten the Windies over five days since 1974, but, glory be, they actually won the first Test of this series by nine wickets. “The game’s established order had been so dramatically overturned that even those within the England party were scarcely able to absorb the fact,” said Wisden.
Gus Fraser had taken 5-28 in the first innings as the hosts collapsed to 164 all out. Allan Lamb’s 132 from England’s 364 first innings total set up the English bowling attack for a second assault on the home batsman. They got the West Indies out for a second time for just 240, with Gladstone Small and Devon Malcolm each taking four wickets. England knocked off the 41 runs required for the loss of a single wicket.
“I’ve waited a long time for this never really been in a winning position in any real form, its just tremendous to get one in the bag,” said Gooch.
In those days, the West Indies were led by Viv Richards, who had dominated England’s bowling ever since he bludgeoned 232 at Trent Bridge in 1976, the first of two bludgeoning double centuries in that series.
But this was not a happy time for Richards.
Bubbling under the surface, his reign showed signs of vulnerability. There were rumours of rifts in the dressing room and in Guyana it emerged that Richards had described the ethnic make-up of the West Indies team as of “African Descent”, which upset West Indians with Asian heritage.
In the third Test at Port of Spain, West Indies were criticised for time-wasting. In the fourth at Bridgetown, even Wisden described an appeal by Richards which led to the dismissal of Rob Bailey as “at best undignified and unsightly. At worst it was calculated gamesmanship”. West Indies won this match and the fifth Test, played in Antigua, to take the series 2-1.
During that final Test, James Lawton, then writing for the Express, had followed up on another gesture made by Richards to Allan Lamb. The angry reaction provoked a sensation. After the article was published, Richards stormed into the press box shortly before the start of play, looking for Lawton. That the rest of his team had already taken the field only served to escalate the story.
“I’m in a very angry mood right now. Anyone who gets in my way should be careful,” said Richards. The next day’s headlines were taken care of, for the front and the back pages. The Soviet-US summit to limit nuclear arms weapons rated only a small paragraph in the Express below their own, far more explosive story.
In 2015, it would be a major surprise if West Indies v England makes even a back page lead. Tours to the Caribbean are not what they once were, and the West Indies are not the cricketing force they were once, either. And then there’s the small matter of Australia to come.
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