Hill rises above Theakston's peculiar tendency

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A COUPLE of months ago, the London listings magazine Time Out printed a story that told me all I need to know about Jamie Theakston, who came to prominence as Zoe Ball's sidekick on kid's TV.

Apparently, he had just bought a flat (no doubt in an area the tabloids would describe as "trendy") and went to consult his neighbours.

"Hi, my name's Jamie and I've just moved in upstairs. I'm a bit of a media player, so you'll probably hear lots of people coming and going. Hope you're not too disturbed - and you can always come and join us if you are." Six months later, the neighbours had heard not a peep from the giddy social vortex that is Theakston Towers.

It was with this delightful anecdote in mind that I approached Cricket World Cup, BBC 2's preview programme, which began promisingly, with Theakston facing up to Darren Gough in the nets ("Can I let him have it, skip?" he asked Alec Stewart. "Yeah. Get into him." A nation cried, "Yes, get into him!")

The only delivery they showed was extremely satisfying, though they cut out the most important bit, so all we saw was Gough steaming in then Theakston on the ground clutching his inner thigh.

Still, it has to be said that Theakston, despite having as much connection with cricket as my dead cat, came across perfectly well, even if he was being given short shrift by some of the England camp.

"Do you mind if we steal your net, fellers?" he asked at one point. "Yes," replied Graham Gooch. "Seriously." Exit Theakston, flea in ear.

He has been around for a while, has young Theakston, but there's a new face on the presenting front, fresh from driving crap racing cars.

His new vehicle is Damon Hill's Wild & Whacky Races (Channel 5, Thursday). Phew! Talk about making a programme sound like something you'd rather perform a lobotomy on yourself than be caught watching.

In fact, he's not bad at all as a presenter - his voice-overs are modulated, his to-camera inserts fresh and funny. He was helped by a surprisingly witty script, and the ultimate accolade is that, like the best referees, you forgot he was there most of the time.

He was on to a winner as well, with the wild and whacky sports he had to cover. There were aeroplanes, snowmobiles, motorbikes with spiked wheels. There was a 12-hour overnight lawnmower classic, even a combine harvester demolition derby.

The fliers defied belief. For the last 36 years in Nevada, an event called Gold Unlimited - "distilled insanity," Hill called it - has pitted madman against madman flying wingtip to wingtip round a tight course at 500mph.

"I don't know what Amendment it is," said Brendon Walsh, of the now-defunct Red Star Racing Team (defunct because they finally saw sense), "but it's the right to kill yourself in spectacular fashion in front of thousands and thousands of people."

They really must be unhinged, the competitors. They fly so close, the turbulence, or "prop lash", can flip them over. And then there's the "flick".

"You pull on the engine too hard and the aeroplane `flicks'," said Walsh's former colleague, Andy Hammond. "You flick at 300ft at that sort of speed and there's only one way you're going to go and there's only one place you're going to go - through the floor."

Oh, and to make it interesting, if you finish in one piece, the runway (which looked about as long as my back garden) came to an abrupt end in a Thelma-and-Louise style cliff-edge. It would be nice for the purposes of continuity to say that that was how yesterday's World Cup opener (Sky Sports 1) was poised at press-time. However...

Two overs in, and there it was - all too predictable. Not the England collapse (that was precluded only by the fact that they were bowling first) but the first ad break. Sky-watchers may be used to their action served up fractured and splintered; for the rest of us, it was a sign of unhappy times to come over the next six weeks. Oh, and then it started raining.