Sport on TV: An empire of Grace and favour until pupils showed ruling class

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The Independent Online

Outrageous expenses claims, dodgy behind-the-scenes deals, the decline of a once-powerful ruling elite – Empire of Cricket (BBC2, Sunday) had it all. Pity, then, that the script stuck too firmly to the simplistic line that this is one of the many sports England invented, selflessly taught the world to play, only for Johnny Foreigner to have the cheek to become better at it than teacher.

The suggestion was that we only had ourselves to blame, first for not playing with a straight bat, then with too straight a bat. There was that bearded behemoth W.G. Grace blithely charging "expenses" as an amateur that exceeded the GDP of many of Britain's colonies, while true profession-als had to subsist on a scrape of dripping and a handful of grass cuttings. And though true gentlemen only played aesthetically to the off, other rotters carved us to leg with no shame.

An hour was never going to allow for more than a skim of history's surface, a chance to dust off old footage rather than explore complexities. But always a pleasure to watch Jack Hobbs elegantly dominating the opening decades of the twentieth century, followed by Denis Compton, all Brylcreem and brio. And no programme about English cricket is complete without a rerun of Ian Botham's Ashes heroics of '81; it's probably actually a law now.

Things got muddled again when that other golden boy, David Gower, explained that he tucked his bat under his arm and went home in protest at the boot-camp training regime introduced by Graham Gooch. Gower dismissed this languidly as the "bench-press era", but hold on, isn't that when England started to win a bit more often? Amateur versus professional, flair versus fitness; all very confusing.

Over the next three episodes our former empire's players get their days in the sun. Let's hope it has set for Australia before this year's Ashes series starts.

* Tennis is also held up as a sport England gave the world but has been largely rubbish at for decades. This is probably why, Wimbledon fortnight excepted, it is largely invisible on terrestrial television. The French Open is playing out on British Eurosport, and Thursday's women's semi-finals featured two Russians, a Slovak and an Australian – surprisingly, because the Aussies have been nearly as rubbish as the English for the past couple of decades.

But though Sam Stosur gave it a good enough go against Svetlana Kuznetsova, it was obvious from the off that she couldn't win; the poor girl just hasn't learnt how to grunt.

More decibels in the other semi, Dinara Safina outmuscled and outmoaned little Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, showing impressive linguistic ability along the way. She talked to her supporters in her native Russian, chatted to the umpire in Spanish; and swore in Anglo-Saxon. The English may not win too much these days, but never let it be said we don't still have influence in the game.

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