An interest in Lord's Cricket Ground is largely a function of whether or not you like cricket. And for anyone who does, the whole institution of the Test match is incomplete without a ball-by-ball commentary from the wise men of Radio 4's Test Match Special, an institution that seems to have begun in late Tudor Britain. Only nowadays, the commentators do their thing inside a curious shimmering building distinguished by its Dan Dare streamlining. I could not imagine Future Systems' architects misspending their youth listening to the exploits of their heroes through a hidden earphone as they pretended to read Pythagoras, so what feel did they have for the needs of the commentators?
Actually, Future Systems followed a trail that had already been blazed by Michael Hopkins and Partners' Mound Stand. One of the reasons for its astonishing success was because the architects somehow persuaded one of the country's most reactionary institutions, the MCC, to build an uncompromising and technically adventurous late-20th century design in the heart of their sacred ground. This was executed with such style and brilliance that everyone now accepts it as part of the furniture of Lord's.
Considering it is essentially a giant periscope with a huge glass visor, the media centre also seems to have settled into the atmosphere of Lord's very well. Certainly, the throng hanging about inside seemed to be largely enthusiastic. However, I did entertain one worry, which Geoff Boycott was kind enough to assuage. Would the sight of such a strange object put a batsman off his stroke, I asked him. "Not if he's doing his job properly, it wouldn't."
The building exemplified the spirit of the game as we moved into the new millennium
Sir Viv Richards
There is no doubt that the media centre is an amazing space inside. The catering and photographic service rooms are in the back, the tiers of press benches and writing desks are in the front and the TV and radio commentary boxes – strictly off-limits to ordinary hacks – are above them.
Sir Viv Richards was courteous enough to take a break from his lasagna to say that he liked the appearance of the media centre. He thought it was just the sort of building Lord's needed and, at the time it was built, "exemplified the spirit of the game as we moved into the new millennium".
The inside is not without its shortcomings. Derek Pringle said you could always tell when journos were in it for the first time because they sat at the front, not realising that when the sun shone you couldn't see a thing, unless you pulled the blinds down – in which case you saw the blinds. So, generally good reports from the sporting mêlée – but I still hadn't found an answer to my question about the Test Match Special boys. Richie Benaud slipped past me as Atherton struck a gorgeous four, but I managed to catch up with Christopher Martin-Jenkins at the buffet, loading up with fruit salad after his mid-morning stint. I explained my mission and told him that most people I'd spoken to thought the media centre had been a success.
The whole thing should have been lower, closer, more open, and I can’t stand this blue
"Not with us, it hasn't," he said – the first voice of real dissent I'd heard. "For live commentators it is absolutely essential to feel like part of the crowd. Cocooned in this thing we can't sense the mood of the spectators at all. In fact, we made the architect put an opening window in. Would you like to see it?"
Could I believe this? A commentator from BBC Radio was inviting me to enter the box at Lord's during a live commentary in a Test match that had already featured – for the first time in Lord's history – four innings in a single day, and now England had a real chance to beat the West Indies. "Well, if you insist," I said obligingly.
We walked up the pale blue carpeted steel stairs, along the gantry behind the sealed commentary boxes, pushed open a portholed blue door marked "Test Match Special", and there they all were: the BBC producer Peter Baxter, Henry Blofeld, Tony Crozier, the listeners' cakes. Everything. And in the middle of the tiny space was the open window, all 0.8 m2 of it. For the first time in two hours, I felt I was actually at Lord's rather than in some virtual reality, Lord's-style, cricket-watching experience. Peter Baxter, after a fierce struggle, persuaded the architect to let him have a window. And here it was: stainless steel tension wires, pulleys, frameless glazing, the whole Future Systems repertoire, but an actual opening window nevertheless. And what a difference it made. Not only could you feel the breeze, but you could hear the crowd clapping, cheering and offering their own commentary: "Everyone know Hicksie don' like no serious fas' bowlin' at he."
Cocooned in this thing we can’t sense the mood of the spectators at all
Of course, when the occupants of the other boxes discovered the opening window experience, they all wanted one. "There was only room for one," they were told by the architects, "and the BBC has already grabbed it." There were quite a few other things that architects seemed to have forgotten about – such as effects mikes. Effects mikes? "You know, from the crowd," Baxter explained. When the centre first opened, the BBC had had to resort to hanging wires out of the window connected to microphones among the seats. Instead of the ambient roar they used to get, what the listeners heard was the sound of pistol shots as ring-pulls were torn off lager cans.
"And all this Melamine," growled Baxter, "totally inappropriate for a sound studio. What we need is something furry, and some pinboard." Baxter failed to get his pinboard but persuaded the architects to let him have a porthole between the commentators' studio and the studio engineers next door. This rather incongruous brass intervention is the only piece of metal in the whole building that isn't aluminium or stainless steel.
I returned to normal life after 15 minutes in heaven armed with fresh insights. I asked Mike Brearley whether he agreed about the open window business. "Totally," he said. "In an ideal world, the whole thing would have been lower, closer, more open. Mind you," he added, "I realise that in this sort of operation there's no such thing as perfection. My wife is an architect."
"Whoever dreamed up these ridiculous air-conditioning spigots in this desk should be pulled inside out," remarked an Australian reporter trying to find space for his laptop between the plastic protuberances on the narrow surfaces.