Comment: Let's hear it for the cricket bunny

A nation shudders - test match coverage could be in the hands of Kelvin MacKenzie
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The Independent Culture
A SHOCK tremor like a Mexican wave at Lord's has reverberated across the civilised world with the news that Talk Radio - the national station bought last year by Kelvin MacKenzie at the head of a consortium that included Rupert Murdoch - has outbid the BBC for the rights to broadcast the English cricket team's winter Test series against South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It will be the first ball-by-ball Test cricket coverage broadcast by a commercial station instead of the Beeb, and is the most recent in a series of heavyweight sporting rights acquisitions made by the wily MacKenzie in the last six months. It's only one Test series, and not even a home Test at that - you won't get Talk Radio banners flying over Edgbaston, Headingley, Trent Bridge, Lord's or the Oval. MacKenzie hasn't hijacked the cricket World Cup (not yet, anyway). But there was no mistaking the upset-ness in the air when the news broke yesterday morning.

On Today, James Naughtie kept repeating to himself that the BBC had lost its Test coverage, sounding like a man in a nasty stupor. The BBC's rights- buyer was grilled about his failure to win the auction, as a brigadier might have been upbraided, a century ago, for his failure to hold Mafeking.

Kelvin MacKenzie complained about the BBC's monopolistic "tax" on its licence-payers. Tony Banks, the Sports Minister, came on the air to sidetrack the argument into football rights. The words "thin edge of the wedge" hovered overhead.

Why should the purchase of a five-day cricket match bother us so much? For fear that it won't stop here: anyone who has heard MacKenzie in mid- rant about the BBC knows he won't be happy until he's bought up the rights to every Test next century, and the headquarters of the Test and County Cricket Board as well. It will mean the end of Test Match Special.

As much an English institution as Gentleman's Relish, Burlington Arcade and Desert Island Discs, Test Match Special defies logic. From 10.45am until stumps at any time after 7pm, it fills the day with hyper-precise yet baffling descriptions ("Atherton takes a flash as it passes just wide of the off-stump") of the slowest game in the world. Over its 42-year history, a panel of commentators with reductive nicknames - Henry "Blowers" Blofeld, Trevor "The Boil" Bailey, Jonathan "Aggers" Agnew, Christopher "CMJ" Martin-Jenkins and the late, now sainted, John Arlott and Brian Johnston - filled in the many longueurs with Flannel Radio: chat about batting statistics, banter over listeners' letters and gifts of homemade cakes, interviews with cricketing greats and practical jokes.

Once, a fellow commentator altered the biographical details of James Judd - conductor of the Halle Orchestra - so that Johnston found himself asking the great man about his pet ferrets, his sponsorship by Weetabix, and how he came to compose the theme music to Every Which Way But Loose.

And now (a nation shudders) Test match coverage could be in the hands of MacKenzie. If the former editor of The Sun could fill a no-budget, no-audience TV station with tasteless and barmy wheezes - topless darts, the News Bunny, the weather read in Norwegian by a Nordic bombshell, Samantha's Big City Tips, in which questionable advice about share movements was given by a young woman who gradually shed her upper garments - what might he do with a key sporting event, a potentially huge audience and a mountain of wonga?

Can we expect to hear the promised line-up of Geoff Boycott, John Emburey and Phil Tufnell making tasteless anti-Afrikaaner jokes about the host nation in November? Will a seductive female voice explain the concept of the "follow-on" while removing her clothes, unseen? In the event of a leg-before decision, will the studio resound with carnival music and cries of "Gotcha!"? And what of the likely quality of the broadcasts, given the fiasco of Talk Radio's Lewis-Holyfield coverage, in which Chris Eubank, Frank Bruno and Jim Rosenthal virtually ditched all commentary in favour of premature celebration of Lewis's "win".

It would be wrong to be snotty about MacKenzie's bold move. Test Match Special is a fine institution, but it isn't a flower of high culture. Indeed, it fits rather well with the MacKenzie world view in its obsession with sexual innuendo ("legovers", "flashers"), its fondness for inter- staff japes, its matey closeness to its audience, its respect for English traditions, its partisanship.

Talk Radio must buy a job lot of Aggers and Blowers and move them wholesale to 1089am. That's the logical outcome in a free market where the BBC has set the prices - and the tone - for too long.

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