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5th July 2020 Features

Marty’s Memories Part 2: The Outgrounds

This year Durham were due to play a one-day game at Darlington. I haven’t covered a match there since a championship victory over Derbyshire in 2000. BBC Radio Derby had the foresight to install a telephone line for their reports.

I arrived with a mobile phone. It couldn’t get a signal. After a few attempts to file reports from a pay phone in the noisy pavilion, my bosses decided I too needed a phone line installing. A BT engineer was on site the following day.

At Kidderminster in 2001 we didn’t even have electricity in the tent we were in. Again the mobile drew a blank. I’m sure the bar was closed in the morning too. So, every hour I had to leave the ground and walk across the road to a phone box to do my live updates. On one occasion I caught the pocket of my new trousers on the corner of a table and ripped it off.

That was a long pocketless walk around the ground. The phone box plan only worked if somebody else hadn’t got there first as well. And you could guarantee a wicket would fall while across the road and with no view of the ground.

I have no idea how we would have got on air at Darlington this year. I was due to pay a visit with an engineer when lock down came. But technology has improved massively. Mobile phone networks are much better. We have equipment which lets us broadcast over the mobile network. It sounds almost as good as the ISDN lines we normally use at grounds.

At South Northumberland CC in recent years we have broadcast on broadband and I don’t think anyone could have been able to tell the difference. Darlington may well have been the same. Or we could have turned to the mini satellite van the BBC now uses.

It just needs a degree of planning. Something which was not always obvious to me a few years ago when mixing my cricket coverage with other duties. But now the cricket coverage is my responsibility I try to leave no stone unturned.

I also commentate on every game too, rather than provide just hourly reports. The booking of lines and planning of coverage is normally done well in advance compared to a few years ago. Sorting out hotels and travel arrangements is also something I look after.

After a few years on the circuit I have built up a good list of the places I like to stay in. And more importantly the ones to avoid.

“Oh yes we have a spare phoneline. It’s the one linked to the alarm system. But you should be OK for the next four days. You won’t be able to see anything though. It’s in the cellar!”

Durham decided to host Kent at Stockton Cricket Club in 2006. Elton John was due to play in Chester-le-Street that week and there was a one day international too. So they moved south. Luckily this was in the days when we were still just doing live updates.

I was reliably informed there was a proper press box at the ground with everything I needed to get on air. This was the 11th time Stockton had hosted a championship match so I thought everything would be straightforward. It was the first time I had been to the ground. And it remains the last.

Outground cricket is not as popular as it used to be because of the costs involved in moving staff and technology. The standard of pitches is also a key concern. And there are cost issues for the host club.

When I got to Stockton in 2006 it became obvious it was going to be a struggle for me. The ground was in a dead zone with regards to a mobile phone signal. There was no line in the press box either. From memory the “press box” was an area set aside in the scorebox. But it was no good to me.

The commentary kits we normally use broadcast on high-speed ISDN lines. The lines were originally designed for major chain stores and pubs to share sales data.  But somebody came up with the idea of using them for broadcasting too. And they generally work fine as long as they don’t get wet. However, they are expensive to install. And that is one of the biggest headaches when it comes to covering games at outgrounds.

Not many radio stations want to spend a few hundred pounds installing an ISDN line, especially if it will be rarely used. The rentals on the lines are also high. Superfast broadband can be just as good and a lot cheaper. Broadcasting on broadband requires slightly different technology but we do have it.

Instead of an ISDN kit, which is effectively a mini mixing desk with the ISDN facility inside, we use a Comrex. Modern Comrex machines are good enough to operate from the 4G network when there aren’t too many other people about. Or you can use Wi-Fi or connect direct to an internet socket.

The older Comrex machines worked on phone lines. They allowed you to link up to base and broadcast at near radio quality. They bubbled a bit sometimes but generally worked well. At Stockton in 2006 I was armed with one of those. The only thing was I needed a line to connect to.

I went to seek help in the bar: “Oh yes we have a spare phoneline. It’s the one linked to the alarm system. But you should be OK to use that during the next four days. You won’t be able to see anything though. It’s in the cellar.”

I filed every report for the next four days effectively underground. I had no view of the outside world at all. And I was surrounded by fridges spewing out hot air. The noises of the gas tanks for the beer were also obvious. But at least I had a means to broadcast.

Just before each hourly update into the news bulletins on BBC Radio Newcastle I would connect the kit to the phoneline and dial in. The modem would beep and click and then it would connect me. Once the newsreader began the bulletin I would climb back upstairs and into the bar to check the scoreboard one last time, before running back down into the cellar to do a live update.

It got a bit tricky each afternoon though because I had to present the sports bulletins from under the bar too. That meant writing them as well. So I connected the line to my laptop and used a dial up internet service to see what was happening in the sporting world. At the last minute I would swap the line back to the Comrex to get on air.

If I missed any action on the field I had to check the online scorecard too. Unfortunately for me it was one of those games where there were wickets aplenty. And on the third afternoon England were playing Trinidad and Tobago at the World Cup in Germany.

That day the bar got packed with people watching the footy and attempts to see the scoreboard were futile. I had to shout across a noisy bar to see if someone could relay the score back to me. And then hope I heard them right and could remember what I had been told by the time I had climbed back down into the cellar. It was stressful to say the least. And maybe this is where the anxiety dreams about not being able to see the action began?

For the record Kent batted in sweltering heat on day one and were sailing along at 100-2 come lunch. Opener David Fulton is now a reporter for Sky TV. He once told me he’d instructed his mum to get to a ground in the first 15 minutes of the day if Kent were batting first. That was so she could see him out in the middle. A lovely piece of self-deprecation.

If she had been at Stockton in 2006 she would have seen him consume 105 balls for 27 runs come lunch. But just after it Kent lost four wickets for five runs and were all out for 179. Graham Onions, Ottis Gibson and Dale Benkenstein took three wickets apiece. Martin Van Jaarsveld top-scored for Kent with 59.

Durham ended up with a 48-run lead the next day. They were bowled out for 227 with Gordon Muchall making 61 and Phil Mustard 41*. Darren Stevens took 4-71.

Kent were staring defeat in the face midway through day two. But Justin Kemp came to the rescue, smashing a century in just 56 balls. It was the fastest hundred against Durham by seven balls. He also put on 174 for the sixth wicket with Stevens, who made 70.

I missed most of it. Trapped underground. Then came news the pitch inspectors were on the way because of complaints about the surface. By the time they arrived it was a different game altogether though. Kent went on to make 411 in their second innings and batting suddenly looked easy. Niall O’Brien also chipped in with 62.

Set 364 to win, Jimmy Maher made 99 and put on 141 for the fourth wicket with Dale Benkenstein, who was on 70 when he was run out. But Durham fell apart and lost by 95 runs as Min Patel took 4-83 and Amjid Khan 3-52.

As it turned out most of the demons were in the heads of the batsmen and not in the surface at all.

From 2004 until 2013 I presented the afternoon news show every Friday on BBC Radio Newcastle. In those days it was three hours long. I only missed the show if I was on T20 commentary duty.

Each week one of the highlights was a chat with Washington DC reporter Connie Lawn. She had been covering American politics since the 1960s and had seen everything there was to see. She had a great sense of humour and we got along really well. Her take on life in America was highly amusing. She used to go into the BBC studios there to speak to me and some of the other local stations across the UK.

After the game in Stockton I flew to Washington DC. It was for a three-day city twinning trip with Sunderland City Council. The council wanted to explore business opportunities there.

I spent a few days exploring the links between our Washington and the American version. I interviewed the city mayor. Attended an event at The British Embassy and presented a three-hour show from the BBC studios with Connie. The studios were ironically in Sunderland place.

On the final night Connie and her husband took us on a whistle stop tour of the city by car. We see all of the major sights from the back of a Toyota hatchback. I would love to go back there one day and have a proper look at the place.

Sadly Connie died in 2018 aged 73. To this day I look back on that trip fondly. And despite the time difference and the other things I had to overcome, like being in a foreign city I didn’t know.

That trip was far easier, from a broadcasting point of view, than the four days I spent covering a cricket match in Stockton!

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