Guerillas revolutionise cricket commentary again – but don’t tell the beeb

Guerillas, just like the beeb, were up in the wee hours commentating all the action from a thrilling match

While, on day one of the Sri Lanka series against England Jonathan Agnew was treating Test Match Special viewers (voyeurs?) to the sight of his elongated self at home in his dressing gown (stop it Jonners!), commentators at Guerilla Cricket were wondering what all the fuss was about.

Because while off-tube broadcasting in various states of undress was new to Agnew and his colleagues, it was already de rigeur at the internet alternative cricket broadcasting service.

For the London-based channel, which had, in its five years of operation, covered 30 Test series prior to England’s two-match trip to Galle – many of them at hours not so much unsocial as thoroughly indecent – had set the standard for broadcasting from home.

Even before the pandemic set in, the operation had appeared in all its glory on YouTube and Facebook Live feeds around the globe from a converted box room in a suburban flat.

Commentators would often roll from under blankets on secondhand sofas in the kitchen that served as a Green Room, and brush down their crumpled trousers, pyjamas or skirts to recover some decorum before going on air for their latest stint – sometimes at ridiculously short notice if one of their number had slipped into slumber while attempting to describe the boring middle overs of an ODI.

Overseas Ashes, World Cups, and Asia Cups had come and gone in such fashion.

Once the pandemic was official and lockdowns applied, however, thoughts turned to keeping Guerilla Cricket’s audience engaged until live cricket could resume – and perhaps beyond. Zoom had become almost indispensable at that point as people, separated by disease, did whatever they could to keep lines of communication open.

“We tested Zoom out with a tournament of dice cricket based on the old game of Owzat,” says Nigel Henderson, Guerilla Cricket’s joint founder and editorial director. “One person rolled the dice in front of a camera in the studio and two others riffed from that feed to provide the commentary. It was all improvised on the spot and we did the games as if live, which enabled us to utilise two of our unique selling points: our jingles and real-time interaction with our audience on Twitter and YouTube.”

The tournament, nicknamed the Dickwella Broad Trophy in honour of two of the finest celebrappealers in the game, ran three times a week throughout May and early June but as restrictions began to be eased and the prospect of Test series against West Indies and Pakistan came into view, the show had a decision to make: whether to return their commentators to the studio, risky in light of the prevailing scientific advice (not to mention the age of some of their contributors), or improvising.

Nigel Walker, the other joint founder and technical director, was used to the latter. It was barely a year since Walker, a former sound technician with property show Homes Under the Hammer, had bailed out the official ICC audio broadcast of the 2019 World Cup, which was faltering badly and, in the process, become pretty much personal chauffeur to that broadcast’s lead commentator Clive Lloyd.

It had been real seat-of-the-pants stuff as Walker, affectionately known as The Bear, would switch between getting the ICC feed up and running in Cardiff or Manchester, or even, occasionally, Chester-le-Street, before taking remote charge of the GC computers to ensure that his own show could reach its ever increasing number of platforms.

Now, the Bear was forced into action again to test whether it was possible to bring the Guerilla universe to its admirers even when its commentators were isolated in front of their own laptops, confined to their individual barracks.

He explains: “We found we could capture the TV feed and send it through Zoom; this allows everyone to sync their own TV feeds to this master feed. This is the hardest bit really.

“Once that is achieved we can all watch the cricket together at the same time and commentate to our hearts’ content. We use Wirecast to capture the Zoom meeting and there is a camera in the studio. This is all pumped out with added graphics.”

Walker grins at the recent rather self-congratulatory article written by TMS producer Adam Mountford on the corporation’s website seemed to imply that the BBC had singlehandedly invented such technology – a nice image I suppose if you still hang to the myth of TMS as a bunch of ageing buffers trying to negotiate their way through a bewildering maze of wires, buttons, gigabytes and microchips.

“The BBC make it sound like a dark art,” he says. “But with a bit of nous, a few computers and a lot of screens it’s not a problem.”

And there’s an added advantage to this form of commentary. Says Henderson: “It gives us access to a wider range of commentary and styles. As long as people have their own satellite feed, we can include contributors who could never get to our studio. Recently we have had contributions from Singapore, the US and Australia. When it’s 4am in England it’s a much more agreeable time zone for some of them; if we start to wane, they can restore the energy.”

If there are minor problems – “sometimes commentators find it hard to hear jingles being played down the feed and will talk over them”, says Walker “although listeners seem to hear them fine” – it proves that at least some elements of remote commentary could be here to stay, even when the pandemic eases.

“We pride ourselves on our reach,” says Henderson, pointing to the plus six million views and listens the programme received worldwide during the 2019 World Cup, an audience topped only by that for England’s tour to South Africa last winter.

“Zoom is helping increase our interactivity with our community and letting us hear even more voices. That’s got to be good for cricket.

“And there’s always the chance you will catch someone in their pants.”