Beaten in India, in Test and One Day International cricket, the usual tour postmortem for England’s cricketers has got under way, though with a slightly different feel to usual years given it was the first time in living memory that the cricket media were not part of the winter tours. COVID-19 restrictions prevented UK journalists from travelling, which meant covering the tours back home “off the telly”.
It’s not a situation I faced in my 23 years at Sky Sports. My work relied so much on being with the England cricket team day-in-day-out, providing daily updates from the camp – at home and abroad. For me, that regular contact was crucial to keep on top of stories and it helped build up trust and familiarity. Reporting is often about being on the front line, where a physical presence counts for so much. It was an approach and work ethic that served me well in years as a broadcaster.
But of course, COVID-19 has changed all this and affected reporters’ professional lives. Zoom press conferences are the norm and many sports reporters are still working remotely – covering the action from their spare bedroom. I’ve spoken to several of my former colleagues to get a sense of how this has changed things.
As the Daily Mirror’s cricket correspondent Dean Wilson put it: “It’s not impossible to get the job done, but we are crucially missing out on the vital face to face contact which we rely on so much and is part of the job.”
Cricket writers are a rare breed because they are away from home for so long - more so than other sports media. It does not make them fans with laptops but as Danny Reuben, the head of team communications for the England Cricket Team says, the cricket press are an extension of the team.
While we don’t want them to be cheerleaders, it’s important they report objectively, and we have got to provide them with the right tools to do that.
As a result of the restrictions, Reuben’s own role pretty much changed entirely – he practically became a journalist himself, providing content, especially for the broadcasters.
Reporting from afar
In many instances this has meant reporters and producers having to go to extraordinary logistical lengths to provide listeners and viewers with the same level of coverage they have come to expect. The amount of work, for example, that went into getting the BBC’s Test match special on the air for the Sri Lanka series – with commentators and pundits dotted all over the UK – prompted producer Adam Mountford to Tweet about how the team work brought out the best of live radio.
For the India series, Talksport gathered its team in London, socially distanced of course. Cricket editor John Norman says it’s all doable, but “you are at the mercy of the TV producer, so the story they are telling, isn’t necessarily the one you want to tell”.
This is a challenge the BBC’s tennis correspondent Russell Fuller, fully identifies with. He swapped the usual glamour of Melbourne, Australia for BBC Sport HQ in Salford, England, for coverage of the recent Australian Open. And while commentary away from the action makes it harder to “paint the picture” – which is so much a part of radio commentary – broadcasters have continued to deliver, despite the unusual circumstances.
Fears over impartiality
Audiences understand that reporters are not able to be where the action is right now, but with the success of Zoom for pre and post-match access, the fear is it could become the norm. In extreme circumstances this could mean the end of the traditional press conference, with the media merely relying on efficiently run communications departments for content.
“That would be a disaster” according to Fuller. “If we are being fed by organisers of tournaments with vested interests in promotion, then journalism is dead”.
Talksport’s football correspondent, Faye Carruthers, says that – given the in-house content produced by the big clubs, even before the pandemic – there was a fear of “more control” over access. She fears the pandemic could mean more and more content coming directly from the clubs, which could set a precedent. She says the media must “act as a collective” to make sure impartial, balanced reporting is upheld.
And that comes down to that most traditional ethics of journalism, holding those in power and authority to account – and in sports journalism that still applies.
Carruthers also talks about how the Premier League will never be business as usual until the fans return. But while pre-match press conferences are, in the main, conducted by Zoom, at least the football media go to games for the perspective they need. This is because they are working in the UK and have government clearance to work adhering to strict COVID-19 entry guidelines. They are so often the eyes and ears for the fans – but even more so now. Though the pathway back to normality is nicely timed for the start of the cricket season, so the cricket media – and indeed the domestic game – lives in hope.
Crucially though it’s important to remember that for listeners and viewers, how the interviews have actually been conducted - whether in person, on the phone, or via zoom – is not really that important. The main thing is that fans have still been able to hear from the players and have been able to tune in to games and matches throughout this time.