Delayed decisions and the myopic maestro

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The Independent Online
WHAT does the third umpire do to while away the time between tricky decisions? Is his television equipped to receive regular broadcasts, so that he can channel-hop while waiting for those tricky run-out calls? These questions are prompted by the viewing habits of umpire VK Ramaswamy, who spent so long deliberating over the fate of Robin Smith on Saturday that he could have got through two or three episodes of the Mahabarata and caught the end of the weather forecast before pressing the red light switch. The decision was what commentators traditionally and tactfully call "very close". In fact, it is a tribute to Smith's self-control that he did not pop upstairs to adjust VK's horizontal hold with his bat.

There was more replay mania on Sky earlier in the week, when Andy Gray did his regular video jockey slot in the run-up to the match on Monday Night Football. Much has been achieved in the taste department here since the early days: Richard Keys, the anchorman, no longer wears jackets the colour of fruit gums, for a start. But there is some way to go: the set still resembles a late-Seventies cocktail bar, and every time Gray reaches up to the rack next to him you expect him to bring down a Pina Colada or Banana Daiquiri instead of a video.

Ruud Gullit, the star guest, sported his intellectual look for the occasion. He wore not only a smart, sensible jacket, but a pair of spectacles, a sight that must have caused a ripple of amusement among watching Premiership defenders. One has to suspect that the specs were a ruse on Gullit's part to inspire a false sense of security among his future opponents. Very cunning.

Gray led Ruud Magoo down to the tactics board, a lurid green Subbuteo-sized pitch on which red and white discs represented the various players. The Dutch maestro picked up one of the discs and fingered it quizzically, as though wondering what tiddlywinks had to do with football.

However silly the props, the accompanying chat made a lot of sense. Gullit was uncannily prophetic in his assessment of Newcastle's style of play. "If it's running, if it's going, it's fantastic. There's a risk in there, but Keegan thinks he can take that risk. It all depends on the first 20 minutes."

So it turned out: Newcastle bossed the game for the opening spell, while Rob Hawthorne searched for metaphors to describe the intensity of the atmosphere. "There is enough electricity here to provide for the National Grid," he ventured. "Manchester United bring Cole back to Newcastle, but there is no need to stoke the furnace tonight . . . impregnable fortress . . . high-octane atmosphere . . . pressure cooker atmosphere . . ." To sum up, St James' Park on Monday night was like an electrically illuminated, coal-fired, high-security casserole.

For a brief moment the cameras cut away to Mr Asprilla Snr, enjoying the fun and waving enthusiastically in the grandstand. No gun.

The game was fantastic, and in his half-time summing-up Gullit once more worked the oracle: "I have all the time the feeling that in one moment Manchester can score," he declared. True to the short-sighted seer's prediction, Eric Cantona settled things in the nuclear deep-fat fryer with a suitably sizzling volley, and Keys summed up. "St James' Park empty and stunned," he observed, following that puzzler with "our pictures tonight presented by the airship in the sky." That's the place you want it for that overhead stuff.

Andy Gray signed off by acknowledging the contribution of Gullit. "He knows far too much about football," he generously observed. "We're not having him on again."

The whole show was slick, snazzy and professional, like the football it featured. Just one big blot: the plug for a certain boxing match splashed all over the screen mid-way through each half of the game. It can't have encouraged many people to sign up for pay-per-view, and it must have made a great many football fans wonder how much it will cost to watch the corresponding match next season.

Still on football, it was comforting to note from ITV's coverage of the Champions' League that, despite his retirement from the international scene, Jack Charlton has kept his inability to pronounce foreign names intact. The way Big Jack puts it, Ajax is more synonymous with total cleaning than total football.

The BBC warmed up for their final grand prix season with a round-up of the latest developments, presented by Steve Rider. He chatted to Michael Schumacher at a bash at Asprey the jewellers, a new Ferrari sponsor. In the background, Schumacher's team-mate, Eddie Irvine, fanned himself with what appeared to be a wad of bank-notes.

Jacques Villeneuve was interviewed in a lumberjack shirt. He also seemed to be wearing lipstick, calling to mind a popular satirical ditty about cross-dressing loggers. And Rider commented on "the unmistakable eyes" of the McLaren adviser Alain Prost. It's not the eyes, Steve, it's what's between them.