Robin Scott-Elliot: If you can keep your head when all about you the Beeb is losing the National

View From The Sofa: The Grand National, BBC1 / FA Cup semi-final, ESPN
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The Independent Online

We're big on the whole recycling thing here at The Independent, so many thanks to the BBC for allowing this column to re-use a line from last year. Here it is: "To BBC Sport the Six Nations finale is a Big Event so on Saturday they did what they always do to mark these occasions; poetry." All you have to do is replace "Six Nations finale" with "Grand National" and we're there.

"This," declared the excellent Clare Balding, "is a sporting event like no other." So much so that the BBC will not be showing the Grand National any more. From next year it will be on Channel 4; unfortunately, Balding probably won't. Which is a shame because she is the ideal presenter for Aintree, striking that elusive balance in hosting a sport that trots into the wider national consciousness on only a handful of days. The trick is not to alienate those who know one end of a horse from another while keeping those who don't interested. Balding is good at that – anyone who can step inside the world of rugby league with padded rather than chipped shoulders and keep everyone smiling has a talent.

But first she had to make way for the poem, spoken over slow-motion shots of hooves and steaming nostrils (the horses', not Clare's). It must be a worrying time for the nation's poets with the BBC cutting costs and shedding sports – building a SPORT CENTRE (it demands capital letters because it's so unique and important – it's got TV screens and people working and everything and is not at all like Sky Sports News) doesn't come cheap. Showing bits of Formula One, that sport for all (apart from those in Bahraini prisons or hospitals deprived of the human right of a television), may be an unquestionably sensible use of the licence fee, but it is not a sport that lends itself to poetry. If you can keep your foot on the clutch when all about you are going into the pits... see? Then again, in compensation the Olympics should offer the grandest of last poetic hurrahs. Come July, if we don't get stanza after stanza of Kipling, a triumph of Shakespeare sonnets and maybe even a burst of Burns when Chris Hoy wins, then I'll eat my collected works of William McGonagall.

Balding was clearly emotional come the end, leading into a rather good compilation of National moments from the years of BBC coverage, which, give or take the odd poem, has largely risen to the occasion. Not that that seems to count for anything when budgets are being slashed, which incidentally must be the reason Michael Vaughan had to work on The Masters. There just aren't sufficient staff these days.

In contrast, on ESPN they were mob-handed for the Merseyside FA Cup semi-final. Ray Stubbs was joined round the table by four pundits: John Barnes, Kevin Keegan, Martin Keown and Graeme Sharp. The reason for such a crowd became apparent at half-time. Pre-match the quintet were stood pitchside; by the interval they had all shifted upstairs and two pundits just would not have been enough to carry the table up there.

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