Full stream ahead: county cricket rolls out digital revolution for Championship

English cricket will step up its digital revolution this summer as counties take their live match coverage to new levels and, for the first time, make all enhanced streams available for free via a single smartphone app.

While the government’s roadmap out of lockdown means supporters must wait until the seventh round of the LV= Insurance County Championship on 20 May before returning to grounds in reduced numbers, video coverage of domestic cricket online has never been better.

Continuing an upward trend of the past few seasons, each county will have between two and six cameras covering every game live, allowing the ball to be tracked, a variety of angles and the greater use of replays. The days of seeing a catch go up, only for it to be held or dropped off-screen, are on the way out.

Starting with Thursday’s frosty first round, supporters will not only be able access games through their club’s website or YouTube channel, but every stream will also be available for free via a live hub on the ECB website and directly through the England Cricket app. This means a one-stop shop that allows registered viewers to switch between games more easily.

Combined with on-screen graphics and improved sound, the service from a number of counties is moving towards full broadcast quality. Commentary will continue to be supplied by local BBC radio services in the main, although a number of clubs, including Middlesex and Gloucestershire, now have in-house broadcast teams.

Nottinghamshire were the pioneers back in 2014, streaming footage from two fixed cameras that were originally used by team analysts. Others soon followed, but the standard across the 18 first-class counties has varied, while some have charged for access or made users hand over their personal details.

The move to augment the streamed coverage of county cricket gathered pace last summer following changes to the digital rights within English cricket’s broadcast deal that finally allowed greater online visibility. This, allied with the absence of spectators due to the pandemic, prompted counties to innovate.

Surrey’s multi-camera offering was the first to partner with Facebook, while Somerset trialled the use of drone footage and have long been considered the leading club for the use of in-play replays. Last summer in the Bob Willis Trophy, they broke the 100,000-viewer mark for a single day of first-class cricket at Taunton.

Somerset are among a number of clubs to begin using presenters and pundits to create an additional “TV feel” for T20 Blast games and, in what is becoming something of a digital arms race, Nottinghamshire are said to be considering the use of up to 12 cameras when broadcasting the shortest format this summer.

Having every stream available via the ECB’s app is considered a huge step forward in terms of ease and convenience, while the increased number of angles should improve the quality of both the online highlights packages and the clips circulated on social media.

There is an acceptance that initial teething problems with this central hub could arise, although the hope is that an improved offering overall will deliver record online audiences for county cricket over the course of a season that sees the Hundred – not the T20 Blast – handed the prime slot during the school holidays.

The Guardian also understands that Sky intends to televise some early summer four-day cricket, with the championship match between Surrey and Middlesex from 20 May the likeliest. This falls in the final round before England select their squad for the two-Test series against New Zealand, by which time every contender – except those playing in the Indian Premier League – should have turned out for their county.

Test captain Joe Root is due to play in Yorkshire’s first two games against Glamorgan and Kent before deciding on the remainder of his schedule before a busy Test summer, while Jimmy Anderson (Lancashire) and Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire) are set to miss the first two rounds but then play at least three fixtures during the lead-up period.

Fast bowler Mark Wood is not expected to appear for Durham until May, while England are yet to decide whether Jofra Archer can fly out for the second half of the IPL or if his return from resting a longstanding elbow injury should occur with Sussex.

Red-ball specialists such as Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope and Jack Leach are likely to be fully available to their counties until the squad meets up at Lord’s before the first Test on 2 June.