Small screen: The face of sport

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Last week on BBC1's On Side, the presenter John Inverdale asked the recovering alcoholic Paul Merson what would happen if his team, Middlesbrough, won the Coca-Cola Cup and in the dressing-room afterwards his team-mates were circulating the champagne. Merson asserted that "they wouldn't pass it to me". "Just like in the game," came back Inverdale, without missing a beat.

It is this sort of exchange that has gained Inverdale a reputation as a presenter who's so laid-back he could virtually front the programme in his dressing-gown. But, he contends, that sort of casual air takes a deceptive amount of work. "It's the old Gary Player thing: it's odd, the harder I practise, the better I play."

We're sipping coffee in a Richmond cafe a scrum-half's pass away from London Welsh's ground early one Monday morning. Underlining that his commitment to sport amounts to more than mere armchair enjoyment, the 40-year-old Inverdale is wiping his brow after a serious workout in the swimming pool and telling me how his rugby match on Saturday went - he plays fullback for Esher. "I played pretty well, but I dropped two passes and it spoilt my whole weekend. But I still love that feeling of waking up on a Sunday morning aching." A part owner of a race-horse, he's off to a meeting at Plumpton after our interview, before haring back for rugby training in the evening.

His relaxed appearance on screen has inevitably led to comparisons with the king of cool, Desmond Lynam, a man originally earmarked for the On Side presenter's chair. It's not a link Inverdale welcomes. "I'm very keen to play that down. There won't be another Des. The world is full of the next whoevers. Ninety-nine per cent of them disappear into the ether never to be heard of again. You have to dismiss that comparison out of hand. It's the classic thing of being set up to be murdered. When you know the googly question, you have to play it with a dead bat."

On Side has its critics. Just last weekend, one reviewer wrote: "I want to be surprised. I don't want to feel that the 45 minutes squandered on watching On Side would have been better spent drilling a hole in my skull and sucking my brains out." And Inverdale himself admits that it is sometimes hard to coax professional players beyond "game of two halves" platitudes. "Sportspeople are having to become more one-dimensional. If you're not, to use that dreadful word, 'focused', then you're not going to win anything. You may be able to talk lucidly about Rachmaninov, but you're going to be ranked 149 in the world."

But Inverdale's aim - whether joshing with John McEnroe or getting Lennox Lewis to play Steve Davis at chess - is to bring out the sheer joy of sport. "Sport is fun. It's serious and a lot of money is involved, but essentially it's great fun. Most people would give their eye teeth to be a sportsperson on an early spring day like today. Would you rather be out in the open air training or sat behind a VDU in an office? I know where I'd rather be."

An unashamed fan with a typewriter - or should that be autocue? - Inverdale also hopes to emphasise what can easily be forgotten in this sneery, cynical age: just what it takes to become a top-class sportsperson. "In one of those moments you never forget, I was on a bus in Seoul in 1988 sitting next to a woman wearing a Great Britain Olympic tracksuit. She told me she was a competitor in the small-bore prone rifle, or whatever. She had taken one shot and then been disqualified, but she was still an Olympian. She goes to her grave having competed in the Olympic Games - which is a damn sight more than 99.9 per cent of us have done. She was better at shooting than the vast majority of us are at our jobs. That's not to be sniffed at. With most people who come on On Side, you think, 'Actually, I'd swap places with you. I'd like to have played at Wimbledon or run in the 4 x 400m relay at the Olympics or been world heavyweight champion'."

Named 1997 Sony Broadcaster of the Year and Variety Club Radio Personality of the Year for his Radio Five Live drivetime show, Inverdale has a wide enough background to avoid the standard-issue "talk me through the first goal" interview. "Neville Cardus said, 'What does he know of cricket who only cricket knows?' If all you know about is left-arm spinners and silly mid-offs, then chances are you're going to have a one-dimensional interview with Brian Lara. But if you know about the political situation in the West Indies, then you'll probably get an interview of broader interest than just talking about batting averages."

For all that, Inverdale is quick to echo the great journalist Hugh McIllvanney's observation that sport is a magnificent triviality. Inverdale points out that his job "isn't rocket science. In the last series I had a complete disaster with Ruud Gullit - it's an intrinsic fault with an interview if neither person can hear what the other is saying. But if that happens, you sit down and say, 'Is the world a poorer place for not having had a brilliant interview with Ruud Gullit? I don't think so'. Sport is something we have an abiding passion for, but the superficial and ephemeral nature of the industry should never be underestimated. It's like Boris Becker said when he went out in an early round at Wimbledon one year: 'Nobody died'."

'On Side' is on Mondays on BBC1. 'John Inverdale's Football Night' is on Wednesdays on Radio Five Live