The 2019 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup is one of the biggest global media events of the year.
A marathon six-week, 48-game one-day international competition has already been watched by audiences in the hundreds of millions, the bulk of them in India and South Asia but with others spread across territories around the planet. It is the sport’s signature occasion, demanding suitably polished levels of production across 11 venues in England and Wales.
The role of executing that task has fallen to Sunset+Vine, the production partner of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and supplier of services to ICC TV. The London-based company recently signed an extension to its deal and will produce broadcast coverage of all ICC global events through the next Men’s Cricket World Cup in India in 2023.
As a defeat for hosts England against Australia brought this year's tournament into a tense, high-stakes new phase in late June, SportsPro joined a group of invited media at Lord's Cricket Ground to get an inside look at a broadcast operation that is meeting unique editorial challenges with bespoke technological solutions.
Sunset+Vine is the production partner of the ICC and responsible for global broadcast production on the World Cup
A repeatable action
“The biggest difference that you will see between many of the other productions that you might have seen in this country is that we are using flyaway set-ups where the equipment is housed in these portakabins,” says Huw Bevan, head of cricket and executive producer for ICC TV at Sunset+Vine. “There is a lot of temporary equipment that is brought in.”
The outside broadcast compound, based just behind the food and entertainment village at the Nursery End at Lord’s, consists of several of these temporary cabins devoted to a specific use - such as the production control room, and audio and visual engineering. Six of these compounds have been in operation throughout England and Wales - the Lord’s set-up has been brought across London from the Oval, whose hosting duties are now at an end - while a more conventional outside broadcast (OB) truck is in operation at two of the smaller venues, the County Ground in Taunton and Chester-le-Street in Durham.
Four core production crews have been travelling around the country, along with five engineering teams responsible for the proper function of technical equipment, with one of each present at every game.
“Essentially, from our side, what we we tried to do is put in place an operational and creative manual that can be deployed across each of those 48 games so there’s consistency,” says Bevan.
What we we tried to do is put in place an operational and creative manual that can be deployed across each of those 48 games so there’s consistency
Huw Bevan, head of cricket and executive producer for ICC TV at Sunset+Vine
Sunset+Vine has developed a standard operations procedure for every match, which details the running order, a shooting guide, the use of graphics and music packages, and the broadcast workflow. The uniformity in set-up extends to camera positions - give or take some adjustments around physical restrictions - and a “consistency in style, in approach, in storytelling ability”. And that approach is in keeping with how Sunset+Vine’s usually works alongside the ICC.
“Wherever we are in the world, whatever ICC event we’re doing, we tend to try and use our core team,” says head of production Joanna Lowdes Lumb. “You could turn up in Mumbai or wherever else and you’ll see quite a few of the same characters there.”
Lowdes Lumb estimates that Sunset+Vine has had to secure 86 visas for its Cricket World Cup team, who have mixed with local crews across the tournament. “I think we’ve got somebody from every Test-playing nation represented as part of our TV crew,” she adds.
The facilities at each host venue are used to produce a live world feed for the ICC but other services are also available for key broadcast partners. Star Sports, the global licensee for all ICC events until 2023, has its own unique set-up in place and works “in tandem with and sometimes in parallel with” Sunset + Vine to “enhance and customise” coverage for the giant Indian market. Sky Sports also has dedicated outside broadcast teams on site for England matches.
Global broadcast partner Star Sports lays multiple language commentary options over the global English feed
There are further production teams based off-site. There is another Sunset+Vine team in Hammersmith, a few miles south-west of Lord’s, producing the global highlights package, while British broadcaster Channel 4 makes use of the BT Sport production base across the city in Stratford. ITN produces video clips for social and digital services, the rights to which are sold separately.
Star Sports, meanwhile, lays multiple language commentary options over the global English feed. Some of this work is done on site, and the rest back in Mumbai.
Alongside the core production team there are five content teams working on the ground during the tournament, picking up colour, pitchside interviews and other supporting video. The use of supplementary packages has been a differentiating feature of this year's coverage, with brief player interviews outlining approaches to the game often dropped into relevant points of live matches.
“We’ll also make all of that content available through a content service to all the rights holders,” says Bevan. “That’s made available to them on an ICC portal, they pull down and use that content for their own shows.”
Showing, not telling
“For us at the ICC, it was very important to create a visual signature, something that was very different but adding to the game at the same time,” says Ajesh Ramachandran, the ICC TV executive producer and senior manager for broadcast.
A Cricket World Cup draws a broader than usual audience to the sport in many territories, and the ICC’s preparations over the past three years unearthed a couple of key insights that have informed much of the production. One was the need to adjust to a younger audience, through the introduction of “visual differentiators” and displays that can communicate detailed information at a glance - “very similar to what you’d see in video games”.
More generally, in fact, the ICC wanted to be sensitive to the requirements of more casual audiences without oversimplifying its coverage. That has meant reframing the purpose of the on-air editorial.
“Quite a lot of the time, commentary is focused on what is happening,” says Ramachandran, himself a former senior executive producer at Star Sports. “Our brief has very much been the ‘why is it happening?’ Anything that can explain why is what we’re giving more importance to.”
The ICC TV team want to improve the viewer’s understanding of aspects of play that can be taken for granted
That thinking became the motivation for all the technological innovations that would be introduced for this year’s competition. In particular, the ICC TV team wanted to improve the viewer’s understanding of one aspect of play that can be taken for granted but is increasingly decisive in the modern 50-over game.
“We looked at things that we really wanted to make a difference in and quickly figured out that, in all of the tournaments that we do, a lot of productions do batting and bowling analysis really well and pay a lot of attention to it but fielding is something that can be completely ignored,” Ramachandran says. “So then we decided to look at products that emphasise field positions, placements, settings; what the captain is thinking, if the bowler is bowling to the field.”
The decision was made to approach Chyronhego about its player tracking and visualisation suite. The ICC became aware of the American company’s work in soccer analysis and commissioned a specialised version for live cricket. As a result, commentators and analysts have access to information about ground covered and runs saved in the field by individual players, and to graphical maps that illustrate the plans that captains may be putting in place for each batsman.
“The feedback that we’ve had to player tracking in particular has been very, very pleasing,” says Bevan. “It took a little bit of time to get it operationally working as we wanted it to but after the tournament proper got underway and people got used to it, I think it’s really been a big value-add because it’s brought the cricket field to life in a way that maybe has not been possible beforehand.”
A new camera position, high on a 45-degree angle behind one end of the pitch, is also in place at every ground to support the Chyronhego output. That has come alongside a full tournament roll-out of Spidercam - not previously a fixture at every English ground, but central to Cricket World Cup coverage for the use of AR overlays as well as sweeping camera shots - while the Batcam's Buggy Cam provides similar flexibility from ground level. Batcam also supplies the production with a drone camera, though this is mostly used for atmospheric and skyline shots at Lord’s due to the distance it must fly from the stadium.
Spidercam - not previously a fixture at every English ground - has been central to 2019 Cricket World Cup coverage
Piero, another product with a history in soccer and rugby, has also been employed at the tournament. It can stitch together several camera feeds within about ten minutes to allow analysts to manipulate and magnify a view of the action, while it can also be used for telestration - drawn images used to visualise an argument or explanation.
“The analysis has been another area that has been very much welcomed,” says Bevan. “We wanted to tell stories across 100 overs and I feel that perhaps people have focused in the past, in the general sense, on cricket analysis in their pre-game shows, their mid-game shows and their post-game,with less emphasis during the game.”
Sunset+Vine has a dedicated team at each match led by specialists like the former cricketer turned writer and broadcaster Simon Hughes, and supported by data analytics specialist CricViz. Working from one of the cabins in the outside broadcast area, they send analysis packages into the commentary box, where on-air pundits review the footage and add their own input during appropriate periods of the game.
As the tournament has progressed, the ICC has also made greater use of the roving creative content teams to collect footage from around the grounds. This has been used for linear broadcasts and highlights, and in some cases - such as the dramatic closing stages of the West Indies’ defeat to New Zealand in Manchester - for digital video clips.
“You need a tournament that’s really big because you need stuff happening behind the scenes,” says Ramachandran of the use of these crews.
Making room for technology
“There’s a lot of technology for an event like this,” Ramachandran says, “so even a slight difference might mean some of the cameras are not able to calibrate properly.”
The ICC’s broadcast operations team, he adds, have conducted at least two inspections at all 11 of the Cricket World Cup host venues. One came about a year out to allow for initial overlay planning, with a follow-up around three months before the tournament began to finalise details. Where necessary, additional checks were possible this time in the weeks leading up to the opening match.
“We had the luxury of ten warm-up games as well so we could integrate it with the rest of the production,” Ramachandran says. “It’s one thing for things to work in isolation but another when the rest of the production shows up, when there are so many moving parts.”
Live testing was critical of Chyronhego’s player tracking system. One thing that was only discovered once the product was trialled was that the tag assigned to each player would be lost when teams converged in the middle to celebrate taking a wicket, and that it would need to be reassigned each time before play resumed.
Live testing was critical of Chyronhego’s player tracking system as players got confused whenever they coverged
Other glitches produced something closer to refinement.
“We quickly realised that having a nice oval shape, which works for a graphic brilliantly, is one thing, but in reality grounds are very oddly shaped,” adds Ramachandran. “We realised that we had to redraw grounds in their actual shape from the CAD [computer assisted drawing].
“Why was this? Because if you had a perfect oval, sometimes you’d find the third-man fielder in the second row of the crowd. They’re actually mimicking what’s real and you can’t in a graphical world just make it perfect like that so you have to draw the actual dimensions.”
The upshot of that is that viewers have an accurate visual map of the pitch that can indicate, for example, why a player may look to score more heavily to a shorter boundary on one side. “We get our commentators to bring that in quite a lot,” Ramachandran notes.
Cooperation between technology providers is also crucial. Graphic designer Alston Elliott has not only been working on incorporating analysis features, but also liaised with Spidercam during England’s 2019 visit to the West Indies to confirm the best ways of framing AR graphics within each shot. That coordination of operations has continued in tournament time.
“To make that enhancement proposition a little more seamless,” Ramachandran explains, “what we’ve done is take some of the key stakeholders and asked them to build some of the new technologies into their workflow.”
Piero, for example, is the responsibility of long-term ball-tracking provider Hawk-Eye, while Chyronhego’s output has been incorporated into Alston Elliott’s responsibilities.
“It becomes easier, with fewer people for us to manage,” Ramachandran says, “and even for the director when there’s multiple voices all offering him stuff, it becomes quite challenging to choose the right one.
Australia, India and the challenges ahead
Naturally, keeping the tournament operation on the road is ICC TV’s priority for the time being but thoughts are already turning to what follows the 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup. For one thing, the aim is to put a technical legacy in place so that when another broadcaster wants to operate a piece of technology, the plans from this summer can be reapplied.
As an example, Spidercam had not previously been widely used in English cricket stadiums but all 11 host grounds will be ready for repeat installations in the future.
“The venues now have an idea of what needs to be done during the rig,” Ramachandran says, “what needs to be done during the game, how some of these technologies work.”
When the final ball is bowled back at Lord’s on 14th July, there will be just a few months until the next set of global ICC tournaments begin. The ICC Women’s T20 World Cup will be played in Australia next February and March, with the men’s event to follow in October. The ICC and Sunset+Vine are about a year into planning for those shorter competitions, with venue inspections underway and new technology providers being integrated.
It’s a great platform for any technology provider because it goes out to all cricket territories. Then, subsequent to that, they get jobs from that part of the world
Ajesh Ramachandran, ICC TV executive producer
The ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup heads to New Zealand in 2021, while India will welcome the men in 2023. Ramachandran says that “60 to 70 per cent of the things you want, you already have to decide considerably early” for a tournament on that scale.
And while the ten-team, all-play-all format of this year’s Men’s Cricket World Cup is slated to return in four years’ time, the logistics of the tournament will be considerably altered. Indian venues are bigger, transport will be an entirely different challenge in such a vast country, and elements such as customs and insurance must also be factored in.
Some features will come under review: the decision not to run 4K broadcasts from England and Wales was founded on a lack of interest in priority markets, but the capability is there to put it in place for 2023 as required. Other technological advances will be implemented after assessing the same balance of editorial need and budget that has been used to develop the 2019 offering. Ramachandran is confident this process will bring out the highest class of innovative partners.
“The great advantage we have is that this is a world event,” he says. “It’s a great platform for any technology provider because it goes out to all cricket territories. Then, subsequent to that, they get jobs from that part of the world, so it’s very important to them as well to showcase the best product that they have.”