On the Front Foot: Don't forget the Beeb's cricket coverage was a total turn-off

  • @stephenbrenkley

Considering the hullabaloo created by the proposed changes in the televising of the crown jewels of sport, a proverb occurs. It is that you can take a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. One of the proposals is that home Ashes Test series are shown on free-to-air television. It is generally assumed that this means the BBC, home of all televised cricket until 1999. This presupposes, of course, that the Beeb would be remotely interested. It is conveniently forgotten in the rush to discredit Sky's coverage – because of its indubitably limited reach – that the BBC has demonstrated a complete disregard for cricket. On the last two occasions that the rights have come up, it has declined to bid for any cricket whatsoever, live or highlights. Perhaps it should also be recalled precisely how Test matches were covered in those halcyon days of free-to-air coverage. For instance, during the epic Ashes series of 1981, when the nation could hardly take its eyes off the action, it actually had no choice. On each day of the series, there were scheduled interruptions to play, for such delights as 'Play School', 'Chock-a-Block' and 'The Skill of Lip Reading'. When Geoff Boycott made his debut for England in the 1964 Ashes series, his fastidious progress was interrupted by 'Watch With Mother' (maybe more entertaining) and 'Middle School Mathematics'. In 1997, the last Ashes to be screened by the Beeb, the first day's play was scheduled to give way to 'Postman Pat'. In Channel 4's day, horseracing regularly featured during play. The first three days of a crucial Ashes Test at The Oval in 2005 were shared with 13 races from Doncaster. It was a funny way to handle crown jewels.

Great deeds of Mann

The release from jail in Equatorial Guinea of the British mercenary, Simon Mann, brought to mind the deeds of his forebears. Mann launched his extraordinary coup in the oil-rich African state from South Africa. It was in South Africa that both his father George and grandfather Frank were involved in matters not quite as contentious – being captain of the England cricket team. Frank led the winning side in 1922-23 who, after losing the First Test, went on to win 2-1. The victory in the Second Test in Cape Town is among only 11 by one wicket in Test history. Mann, having made a gritty 45, was eighth out on 168 with five still needed. George Macaulay and Alex Kennedy saw England home. In 1948-49, George Mann led England to a 2-0 victory in the five-match series, with narrow wins by two and three wickets. In the deciding match in Port Elizabeth he made 136 not out.

Simple for Simon

Another Simon Mann (unrelated) happens to be in South Africa. He is the splendid, but often overlooked member of the 'Test Match Special' commentary team. Having been underused in the Ashes last summer, Mann is covering the one-day series and two Tests in South Africa. He was last pressed into service when the BBC, having decided they could not afford ball-by-ball coverage of the recent Champions Trophy, suddenly changed their mind when England reached the semi-final and had to fly him out at short notice.

Arlott, peerless radio star

Given all this talk of Mannhood it would be remiss not to recall one of the immortal lines in cricket commentary. On George Mann's tour of South Africa, he was being given a torrid time in a match by his namesake, left-arm spinner Tufty Mann, who took 17 series wickets, twice dismissing the England captain. One afternoon when he was being especially bamboozling, the great John Arlott said: "What we have here is a clear case of Mann's inhumanity to Mann." Simon of that ilk will do well to ever match that.