Duck soup by satellite and a swish wish

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
ENOUGH of such trivial matters as the decline of the England cricket team and Terry Venables's selection policies. It is time to talk of weightier stuff: of animated waterfowl, swishes, slow-motion replays and mad dogs.

Watching England's tail-enders do their thing in Johannesburg last week called to mind Cholmondeley the duck. He was the cartoon creature who, in the early days of Sky's cricket coverage, accompanied scoreless batsman back to the pavilion, pantomiming grief and frustration on their behalf. But Sky's pictures were a duck-free zone last week - indeed, the only animals on view were a pair of sweet English rabbits called Angus and Devon.

Cholmondeley was put out of his misery a couple of years ago, and research reveals that, spookily, his disappearance coincided with the first appearance on our screens of Charles Colville. One can't help wondering whether some Frankenstein-style transmogrification occurred between gormless duck and charmless presenter.

At close of play on Friday, Colville lined up with Bob Willis to moan about England's performance. Standing in the setting sun in their blazers and ties, they resembled colonial subalterns waiting for the first pink gin of the evening. The dialogue, suitably, was like excerpts from a Noel Coward script. "England seemed so flat in the final overs," Colville opined. "Yes," Willis mused. "There's more than one way to skin a cat." Perhaps he'd been after big game on his days off in the veld.

Cholmondeley's demise proved that there are some gimmicks too crass even for Sky. Perhaps now they can turn their attention to the abolition of the swish - no, not the favoured shot of English batsmen against innocuous South African spinners, but the irritating little noise that accompanies every replay on the satellite station's football broadcasts.

Sky seem to believe that this noise adds to the hi-tech ambience of their coverage. It might, if it had not been so obviously "sampled" from the noise that the doors made on the old starship Enterprise.

I rang the boffins at Dish House, who told me breathlessly that if the viewer's television is equipped with Dolby surround-sound, the swish seems to travel all the way around the room. Presumably this allows the swish to annoy a room-full of viewers one at a time, whereas in boring old mono it drives them all up the wall simultaneously. I await the technical development that will allow the swish to travel all the way around the room and out of the door. For good.

Football is not the only sport to be so afflicted: some pretty odd noises accompanied the slow-motion replays from Johannesburg. As the ball spun slowly on to a pad, or arced gently towards a waiting pair of hands, there came a deep, inhuman groan, like the sound of one Mastodon calling to another across a foggy swamp.

Was it the spirits of deceased medium pacers appealing across the ether from the great net in the sky? No, it was some great nit in the Sky scanner van who had left the effects mike on, thus permitting the transmission of "Howzat!" slowed down by a factor of 20.

There was more slow stuff on ITV, and it wasn't just Bob Wilson. The first episode of a new documentary series, Peak Performance, used ultra- slow-motion film to examine the technique of the American world champion high hurdler, Allen Johnson.

For dramatic effect a great deal of the film was shot from beneath the hurdles, and the viewers saw more training-shoe soles in half an hour than the average Dolcis assistant does in a week: never has the term "footage" seemed more appropriate.

The worm's-eye-view and super-slow speed also made the jumping of each hurdle a suspenseful business. Here he comes: ankle over, calf over, thigh over - wait for it - those bits over, now, where's the other leg?

Zoe Wanamaker's commentary was suitably breathless, but inclined overmuch to the mechanical metaphor. "Perfect technique needs a perfect engine," she purred, as the camera tracked lovingly along Johnson's leg: "These are the pistons." Fortunately the camera had failed to keep pace with her, and pulled up at the thigh.

For all the attention paid to the athlete's musculature, the show was stolen by his weight-trainer, a gigantic football coach called Jeff "Mad Dog" Madden. "Mad Dog", who looked like a house in a T-shirt, and wore more jewellery than the average rap musician, was given to stating the obvious: "My body type is very different from Allen's", for instance. He led his charge through an excruciating regime of bench-presses and leg-lifts, culminating in an ice bath to reduce swelling, among other things. "Mad Dog guides and instructs," Wanamaker observed, as he tipped another bucket of frozen cubes over the wincing athlete. Perhaps he should change his nickname to "Guide Dog". Or "Ice T".