Sense and sensibility in commentary box

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The Independent Online

It seemed a shame that Boycott, quite aside from grammatically holing out to silly mid-off, was not prepared to give the bowlers more credit. Instead he felt that Australia's top-order batsmen had brought most of their woes upon themselves, and his linseed-oiled view of proceedings rather reminded me of certain celebrated football defenders who, as pundits, rarely see beyond the positional naïvety of the centre-half, no matter what dazzling skills a striker has deployed in scoring a goal.

The employment of former professionals who declaim on current sporting events has a nobler tradition in cricket than most other sports. Richie Benaud and Jim Laker were holding their BBC microphones long before it became obligatory for every football commentator to have a grizzled ex-pro sitting alongside him, and now you can hardly step into the media box at Lord's without trying to think of a collective noun for former England captains.

The best of them, such as Boycott and Mike Atherton, offer fascinating insights into what is going on out in the middle. And sometimes, into what went on when they were out in the middle. On Thursday, for example, Boycott observed with a chuckle that it is not unknown for a batsman to pretend to slip as he turns for a second run, in order to stay at the less vulnerable end. The implication, seemingly, was that he was not averse himself to performing this dastardly trick, more fodder for those who believe that his own batting average was more important to him than the fortunes of the team.

His co-commentator, whoever it was at the time, did not press him on this. Sometimes old pros make the most provocative statements which are allowed to hover unchallenged until the moment has passed. Something similar happened the evening before, when Greg Norman was interviewed on Radio Five Live. Tiger Woods, said Norman, was undoubtedly one of the finest players of his generation, but could not yet be described as one of the greatest of all time.

I was driving and damn near swerved off the road. Woods, for the record, has already won five times as many major championships as Norman did. With respect, the Great White Shark is the flounder by comparison with Woods, whose comprehensive victory at St Andrews last weekend, moved him to third in the all-time list of major-winners.

With 10 under his cap, he is just one behind Walter Hagen, and eight behind Jack Nicklaus. All the others - Player, Palmer, Hogan, Vardon, Snead and certainly Norman - are behind him. Moreover, he has now won each of the four majors at least twice. It is frequently said that we have entered the age of one of the greatest tennis players of all time, yet Roger Federer has still to master the clay of Roland Garros. Woods has done it all.

Now, it may be that Norman does not consider the tally or spread of majors to be the measure of greatness in golf. But anyone who does not place Woods at least among the five greatest players ever to apply club face to ball, given his dominance in an era when the competition has never been stiffer, is either seriously deluded, or suffering from a terminal case of sour grapes. Alas, Norman's questioner, the normally excellent Ian Carter, did not challenge the assertion until after he'd bid him a cheery goodbye.

Maybe it's hard for sportsmen on the downslope to talk generously about those occupying the summit. But I notice no equivocation from my colleague Angus Fraser, for instance, in praising the remarkable quality of the bowling at Lord's. And the true all-time greats have always been quick to acknowledge the prodigious gift of their most illustrious successors, as Bobby Jones did of Jack Nicklaus, as Nicklaus in turn did of Woods, as Rod Laver has of Federer, and of course as Pele, during the 2002 World Cup, did of, erm, Nicky Butt.

It is similarly gratifying, I might add, to find a generosity of spirit on the part of former top sportsmen towards the prodigiously ungifted. Last Tuesday, I played cricket for the Lord's Taverners under the captaincy of Mike Gatting, who, hoping to keep the opposition's star batsman from the strike, posted me at shortish extra cover "to cut off the single". I then proceeded to make not so much a meal, more a seven-course banquet, of cutting off the single, flopping on to the ball and returning it to the wicketkeeper with such a singular lack of athleticism that the single was made with roughly two minutes to spare. And what did Gatting do? He applauded warmly and shouted "Well done, Brian". I beamed, even though I knew.

Boycott, I suspect, would have given me the truth with both barrels.