Australian Rules: Entertainment rules when they call the game: Keith Elliott reports from The Oval on the latest stirring exhibition of Australian football

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CRICKET and Australian Rules football have a lot in common. For a start, the national game Down Under was founded in Melbourne by Thomas Wentworth Wills, who saw it as an ideal means of keeping cricketers fit during the winter. A cricket pitch, as yesterday's showpiece here between the Carlton Blues and the Richmond Tigers proved, is the perfect venue. (A soccer pitch is too small because the game requires a playing area of about 165 metres by 150 metres.) Why, Aussie Rules even boasts a commentary as idiosyncratic as Test Match Special.

Channel Seven beamed yesterday's game and a preliminary between the Adelaide Crows and the West Coast Eagles live to Australia. In Adelaide, they interrupted the Saturday night film to show it, while in Perth, a nationwide telethon went on hold until the match was over. No wonder the TV network sent its top commentators over.

The front man is Sandy Roberts, doyen of Aussie sports commentators. Smooth as Peter Baxter 'he could host an Ocars ceremony,' says Scott Palmer, sports editor of the Sunday Herald-Sun and the team's touchline man. Expert analysis comes from Ian Robertson, who played in the very first Aussie Rules invitation match at The Oval, 22 years ago. 'They covered the cricket pitch with matting to stop us treading on it,' he recalls wryly. Robertson and Roberts worked together as slickly as any comedy duo. A tap on the shoulder and the other takes over. It's easy to see why the Aussies love 'em and why ex-pats shouted up to the Dennis Lillee balcony: 'Hey Sandy, hey Robbo]'

Television, being concerned with the on-field action, cannot see commentators' antics. But the two Rs are as animated as a kangaroo on an electric fence. They leap up and point wildly at an unmarked man, or adopt the umpire's gunfighter pose when a goal is scored. So what is their special appeal? It could be their trenchant comments: 'Look, son, he was a mile in front of his opponent. Why not pass to him?' Or their original turn of phrase: 'Look at that Brendan Gale: you wouldn't want to meet him coming out of a Slug and Lettuce.' Certainly, their easy knowledge of the game's trivia -'they call him Jug Ears in the dressing-room because he's got ears like Prince Charles' - adds an extra dimension to this unrelentingly fast game.

Some players cover more than 10 miles in 80 minutes play, and it takes seven umpires to monitor the players' movements.

And it should be a worldwide winner. It has distinctive characters, from Mil Hanna, a bald Vinnie Jones, to the dream-boat looks of Tony Modra. It's non- stop, fast, athletic, skilful and tough. 'Some players break their nose three or four times during a game, but there are very few bad injuries,' Palmer says. But even in its homeland, rugby and basketball threaten its popularity.

There seems little chance of the game catching on here. Shame, really. Out of season, it would be nice to hear sporting chat about favourite soaps and the previous night's drinking. Even Johnners would have approved.

AFL EXHIBITION MATCHES (The Oval): West Coast 14.13 (97) Adelaide 8.8 (54); Richmond 14.18 (102) Carlton 13.5 (83).

(Photograph omitted)