Andrew Tong: The Beeb are back, but stuck in limbo

View from the armchair
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The Independent Online

It was just like old times at Auntie Beeb's. You half-expected to see Peter West on the pavilion roof, the sunlight glinting reassuringly off his polished pate.

As cricket returned to the BBC in the form of Ashes highlights, there was the dear old theme tune, "Soul Limbo" by Booker T and the MGs. And there was Richie Benaud swooning: "Ooooooh yes!" His adoring viewers could not have put it better.

The opening credits contained footage of England's glorious Ashes campaign last year. Then came a montage of horrible images from this match, set to The Who's "I can see for miles". It should have been "I can see you're miles better". Given England's woeful return on the huge level of public expectation, there was a certain irony to the first line: "I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise."

The BBC are probably patting themselves on the back for only paying about £10 million to Sky for the highlights instead of forking out £220m for a four-year live exclusivity deal.

Manish Bhasin of Football Focus fame is the new face of BBC cricket. He had no idea where Brisbane was on the map - he pinpointed at least five places in the deepest outback before someone told him. But his anchor role was mercifully free of the gushing poetry of Mark Nicholas on Channel Four's highlights, which used up so much time you hardly saw any of the action.

But this is not a Nicholas-free zone, because bizarrely he now presents on Channel Nine, whose commentary the BBC are using. He has always been something of an open-shirted lothario whispering in your ear, so his late-night seduction is not without its charm. But gee whiz, golly gosh! How on earth do the Aussies put up with him all day long?

Benaud will no longer be broadcasting from England, having retired at the last Ashes Test at The Oval, but he is still behind the mic for Channel Nine. He remains the walnut face of cricket Down Under, his cream, pastel pink and duck-egg blue jackets having long personified the exoticism of Oz. Twenty years ago there was only Richie, peering oddly into the camera, to tell us about Ian Botham smashing his way to 138 at Brisbane the last time we won the Ashes in Australia.

Bhasin wound up the first day's 40-minute package with Benaud and Geoff Boycott - the Aussie batsmen having already booked in for B & B - live on the outfield at the Gabba, just as the teams came out to start the second day's play.

Sky stipulate that the BBC cannot show highlights until they have shown their own three times. So the Beeb have to wait until at least 10pm. But this was absurd. As soon as the action began, they had to leave. What happens if Harmison is on a hat-trick overnight? Well, no need to worry about that right now.

Just to add to the surreal scenario, we were treated to the sight of the Test Match Special commentary box without the sound. Perhaps this is the BBC's latest innovation, silent footage of radio presenters. It might make more palatable viewing than the real thing.