Motson and Pleat take a turn for the verse

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The Independent Online
JOHN MOTSON kicked off his commentary on England's international with Switzerland (Sportsnight, BBC1) in ambitious style. "There's the England coach," he said, "a man who with his chirpy resilience takes speculation, allegation and frustration in his stride. What can Venables and his England players provide for the congregation of spectators here?" Poetic stuff. But when, with his next breath, Motty discussed the "bore draw" in Norway, a breathtaking prospect loomed: was he going to describe the whole game in rhymes? An England international in epic verse? The adventures of Don Howe in the style of Don Juan?

Sadly, despite the mileage he could have got out of an array of Swiss Misses, Motson declined the challenge. Perhaps he had been discouraged when he looked at the team-sheet and saw that the Swiss striker was called Turkyilmaz. Whatever the reason, Motson reverted to his reliable vocabulary of "dampened spirits" and "uphill struggles". No more Bon Motson.

But David Pleat, the summariser, had been inspired. Picking up Motson's discarded copy of Bluff Your Way in Poetry, he turned to the chapter marked Alliteration. "The three S's," he essayed, "Sheringham, Shearer and Stone, absolutely sharp." Flushed with success, Pleat flicked through to Basic Imagery. "Tonight," he declared, "we have unearthed a very polished Stone."

You could tell that the Sheffield Wednesday manager was chuffed with his night's work. Towards the end of the game, Motson asked him for his thoughts and he couldn't resist repeating his gem of a remark. "As I said earlier, tonight we have unearthed a very polished Stone." Pleat is in the running for the post of Pundit Laureate, and wanted to make sure that the judges had noted his wit.

The match itself turned on the desperate flailings of the Swiss goalkeeper who had, Motson observed, "lost his bearings a bit". Perhaps the large yellow sundial emblazoned on his shirt was giving confusing readings under the Wembley floodlights.

More confusion was caused in the closing minutes of the match by the mystery of the substitution that never was, an episode that Conan Doyle might have entitled The Case of the Missing Midfielder. Paul Gascoigne was to be replaced by Peter Beardsley. Beardsley got up from the bench and started to remove his tracksuit, whistles were blown, number boards held up. But the referee noticed none of this, and if Gascoigne did he wasn't letting on. And the next time the cameras focused on the bench, Beardsley was nowhere to be seen. "The mystery deepens," a puzzled Motson reported. "Peter Beardsley seems to have disappeared." Pleat reminded viewers that the Newcastle player was a very small man, and suggested that he may be concealing himself somewhere on the bench. And so it turned out: Beardsley had cunningly been hiding behind Don Howe's trilby, the only kind of hat-trick he was likely to register on Wednesday night.

Sky's live coverage of the game was slick and stuffed with wizzy replays, as we have come to expect, but, as we have also come to expect, their determination to squeeze the maximum amount of airtime from the match resulted in an interminable sequence of studio waffle over pictures of young England fans waving flags and picking their noses.

The only insight thus revealed was that the giant hammer is this year's inflatable of choice for the junior fan. And Sky's coverage of the first Test from Pretoria revealed that the fad has not only crossed sports, but continents. It was unfortunate, however, that the fan wielding the hammer in the stands at Centurion Park was white; especially so because the fan whose cranium he was playfully belabouring was black.

Further evidence of the lingering shadow of apartheid was supplied by Jonathan Agnew on Radio 4 when he described the commentators' accommodation. Apparently the BBC boys have one box all to themselves, while next door on one side the Afrikaans commentators have their own dedicated box. Next door on the other side, however, commentators in three different African languages are all yammering away at once in the same box. Separate development?

There was nothing sinister on the pitch, however, apart from the expression on Allan Donald's face as Jack Russell whipped his peachiest deliveries all over the ground.

Russell's mystifying batting technique was a source of great amusement to the Sky commentators, particularly the ex-Hampshire pairing of David Gower and Mark Nicholas. As Russell, hopping around the crease like a gerbil with an amphetamine habit, fiddled another boundary, Nicholas remarked: "He's nothing if not completely eccentric." Spot on: Russell talks to his bat with the same enthusiasm that George III reserved for his favourite trees.

But he saw off the worst that Donald could throw at him. Or, as John Motson might put it, Russell's bustle beat the muscle-man.