Live telecast of Test cricket: A brief history

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24 Jun 2020 | 11:28 AM
authorPramod Ananth

Live telecast of Test cricket: A brief history

On this day in 1938, we witnessed live Test cricket on television for the first time

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The year 1938 was a significant year in the broadcast industry as a whole where many TV programs, news bulletins and live sport reached people’s homes, during a time when radio was the only source of entertainment. When it comes to sports, there were a few firsts. The Oxford and Cambridge Boar Race, the FA Cup Final, the football match between England and Scotland, the ice hockey match between Harringay Racers and Streatham Redskins were all televised live on TV, primarily on BBC.

Amidst all there was also a Test match televised on BBC for the first time – the second Ashes Test between England and Australia at Lord’s – on this day in 1938. 

It was a huge achievement considering that the first-ever live radio coverage of a match was in 1922 – which was a testimonial match for Charles Bannerman – the first centurion of Test cricket. The match was between the two XIs from New South Wales (NSW).

Two years after the first-ever radio coverage of a cricket match, the 1924-25 season saw two Tests covered by Clem Hill of the local Sydney station, right from the spot, making it the first cricket coverage of a Test match over radio. That was followed by ball-by-ball coverage of Australia vs The Rest at SCG in 1925, where Len Watt, the commentator, who was the voice behind the first-ever radio coverage in 1922 was once again part of this. From the following year –1926 – regular radio coverage began for all Australian state matches.

The year 1927 was a very important one for radio broadcast in England as the New Zealanders against Essex became the first match to be broadcast on radio in the country. 

Fast forward to 1938, and for the first time ever, a Test match was shown live on TV. The Ashes was previously covered on radio before this in 1930, but this is the first time the BBC had the opportunity to live-telecast a Test match. 

It was the second Ashes Test between England and Australia, which was played at Lord’s after the first at Trent Bridge ended in a draw. Why was that not telecast? The technology was limited just within the area of London. The England vs Scotland game at Wembley and Wimbledon were also telecast before adventuring into cricket, which seemed to be the natural progression.

Since BBC already had a good relationship with the MCC, a commentary position had been set up at the Nursery End of the Lord’s stadium. There were three cameras – one focussing on the batsman one on the bowler and one to get a glimpse of the general atmosphere of the venue. 

Teddy Wakelam was chosen as the broadcaster for this game. He had prior commentary experience when he called the shots in an England vs Wales rugby match at Twickenham on BBC Radio, 11 years later he went on to create history when he became the first journalist to commentate on a live cricket match on television. In between he was also put in charge of covering an FA Cup football match between Arsenal and Sheffield United on radio – the first such instance and the same year, he also covered Wimbledon. 

At the time of the telecast, there were only 7,000 TV sets sold and the signal would be only received for about 20 miles from Alexandra Palace – BBC’s transmission centre. 

There was barely any publicity in the papers or the radio about this innovative venture by the BBC. The coverage was from 11:30 AM to 12:30 (Morning session), followed by 2:30 PM to 3:30 (Till tea) and finally from 3:50 PM to 5 PM (Evening session). The broadcast was so successful that an extra program was fitted in towards the end of the day’s play "to enable City workers to see the match in their own home."

After the success of the Lord’s Test – that saw double centuries from Wally Hammond (240) and Bill Brown (206*) the fifth match at The Oval too was telecast. In that match, England scored 903 for 7 – a record that stood for nearly six decades. Len Hutton smashed 364 as England won the match by a comprehensive margin of an innings and 579 runs, which is still the largest margin of victory for a team in Test cricket.

The same year – 1938 – also saw BBC telecasting their first-ever Test overseas – South Africa vs England, Christmas Eve Test, that saw Tom Goddard scalp a hat-trick on Boxing Day. 

In the next 10 years cricket TV coverage became a regular feature, but it was restricted to only Lord’s and The Oval. However, in 1946, new transmitters were built that paved way for telecast of matches in at Edgbaston in 1950 and in 1952 at Headingley. Soon in 1957, the first uninterrupted ball-by-ball coverage on radio took place, which paved way for the birth of BBC’s iconic Test Match Special programme. 

Sky came into the picture in 1990 and then nine years later they ended BBC’s monopoly of Test cricket after they won the rights along with Channel 4. And in 2005 Sky solely won the rights for all live international and domestic coverage for cricket played in England and even now holds those rights. 

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