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 station’s 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 4’s first Test broadcasts in 1999 and is currently the International Cricket Council’s 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. Mitchell’s cricketing chops are well established, while Smith is more of an all-rounder, most commonly associated with football although he helmed ITV’s coverage of the Indian Premier League with aplomb.
“I played a bit as a kid, always loved it, always enjoyed working on it when I got the chance,” he says. “I 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 I’ve had to work on cricketing-wise, but that’s great, you relish that. I think as a broadcaster you want new challenges, you want to be on your toes, because I think that’s generally when you produce your better work. You don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. You’re better when you’re pushed to find new ways to deliver your skills.”
Mitchell’s mother comes from Adelaide, and as a child she supported Australia through the Ashes while her father and brother cheered for England. “I 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, don’t you, as the daughter?” she says. “We 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 uncle’s golf club or something.”
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. “It’s really great for me that I’m still able to do that,” Mitchell says, “because I think probably BT Sport recognise that radio, and my background in that, is an important part of why I’ve got the experience that enables me to be part of their team.”
Smith replaces Greg James, the Radio 1 DJ who presented BT Sport’s 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. “I don’t think you flick a switch,” he says. “There’s only so much brainpower that I’ve got, for sure, but I would always keep across what’s happening in the world of cricket in broad terms, and then I think you spend more time on it as befits what’s coming. My experience is that you have to kind of deal with what’s in front of you, you have to have the ability to compartmentalise, so I suppose it’s a useful trait that you look at what’s happening next, really.
“That’s not to say I’m not thinking about the Ashes right now because I’m working on football. I’m probably starting to juggle a little bit more than maybe I would have been six months ago. And then when the day comes, I’d like to think that I’m as ready as I can be. I’m not going to be an expert, I’ve never played professional cricket so I’m not attempting to portray that, I’m just hoping to ask the right questions and use the expertise that’s at my disposal.”
Last year Mitchell was the channel’s 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 Smith’s mobile studio positioned as close as possible to the action. “Part 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,” she says. “In 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 day’s play we’re out there in the middle as the teams are warming up, so we’ll get that access.”
BT Sport is keeping much of its planning under wraps – the Spin was told that we might be allowed to talk to a producer in a few weeks’ time – 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 “won’t miss standing beside a football pitch and shivering for seven weeks, that’s for sure”, but other than the prospect of 24 hours on an aeroplane next to Michael Vaughan seems genuinely excited by the whole thing. “They first called in the summer and I said I’d have to think about it,” he remembers. “Not for long. Maybe two or three seconds, and then I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ You can’t really make a bucket list of sporting events to cover because it doesn’t really work like that in broadcasting terms, but if you could, this would be pretty high on it.”
This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To sign up just visit this page and follow the instructions