Postcards from the edge fail to fill the gap

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
IS THIS any way to run a World Cup? You get the thing rolling, attract some attention and steam through the early stages. And then, just as things are becoming interesting, you have a week off - no rugby from Sunday to Saturday. Imagine that army of ITV presenters out there, all wandering around redundant. South Africa last week must have looked like Liverpool.

Attempting to keep us engaged, and perhaps to make sure their equipment hadn't seized up, ITV offered a midweek bulletin on Wednesday. The Radio Times promised us the programme would be a half-hour of "the latest news and action from South Africa", which it was, except without any news or any action. Instead, lightly furnishing the void, there was a truly dire skit involving Chris. Or it might have been Mark. Or was it Nigel? Actually, thinking about it, it could have been one of the Gregs. Anyway, whoever it was had to deliver a report in the form of a postcard home.

"Dear Mum," he began. Dear God, one thought. Some tricksy computerised graphics then flipped up the image on our screen and swooped it, postcard- style, into the slot of a letterbox against which Chris/Mark/Nigel/Greg was leaning with a brave grin. I have no idea how much money Chris and the rest are paid to go through this kind of thing. But it isn't enough.

The gap in play brought one compensation. As a result of the enforced rest, all of us are in better shape to take up the mental cudgels again in the searing intellectual probe which is the ITV Rugby World Cup phone- in quiz. It's the "either/or" brain-buster that's teasing a nation. In case you've missed out so far, the competition asks you to consider a proposition and then select resolution A or resolution B, using only your skill and judgement and the fact that the answer is very obvious indeed.

Not since the National Lottery was introduced has a mind-bending conundrum gripped the collective imagination so tightly. In shops and on street corners up and down the land, people are stopping each other and saying: "What do you reckon? Is that white thing they're throwing around a ball or a piece of exotic fruit?" First prize: tickets to the final. It would be stupid not to enter. And extremely stupid not to get it right.

Something like normal service finally resumed on Friday night. On the eve of a big rugby weekend, you would have thought the studio might have been alive with anticipation and excitement. As it was, the atmosphere on set - with Mary Nightingale and Mark Austin behind one desk, Clive Norling and Gordon Brown behind another - was akin to that difficult, stilted sitting-in-the-front-room stage at the beginning of a dinner party; one at which a pet has done something unspeakable in the Twiglets and nobody dares mention it.

Nightingale and Austin are the Ken and Barbie of televised sport, only without the repartee. Nightingale chats and smiles, for all the world as if an autocue isn't telling her to. But it's Mark Austin I feel more sorry for. The nerves have got to him. He wants out of there. At home, you are uneasy on his behalf. It's almost certainly the case that somewhere in the country, concerned old ladies have started sending him sweaters and food parcels and listening out hopefully for the sound of the choppers coming to airlift him to safety. Not long now.

Test Match Cricket (BBC2) returned on Thursday, with England playing the West Indies. Often dismissed as slow and undemanding, Test matches are, surely, one of the most arduous challenges sport has to offer - a five-day trial for both mental concentration and physical sinew. And it can't be a lot of fun for the players, either. Test advocates will you tell you that the inevitable boring bits are an essential part of the Test match rhythm. To which non-fans reply: "Get a life". But what we saw on Friday, at least, could have appealed to both camps.

Geoffrey Boycott issued before play his daily close-up report on the condition of the wicket and said he fancied the pitch was a perfect one for a batsman. Actually, I thought I noticed at that moment a badly worn patch down the off-side where Boycott keeps going every morning and poking it with his pen. Whatever, this didn't seem to upset Brian Lara, who whacked his way to 51 in 40 balls. Lara must be a television producer's idea of a good time. You don't need to edit anything for the late-night highlights programme.

Just before Lara's innings, we'd watched the precipitate collapse of England's batting, which is always fun. Darren Gough emerged from pavilion to a guttural roar from the crowd. "All England looks to him for great things," said David Gower, apparently remembering a line of piffle from some old school play. It was then stupendously gratifying when Gough was caught first ball. It put you in mind of some of the great Murray Walker rally- driving moments of old, when he only had to commend a driver on his skill in order for the car to end up, a split second later, on its roof in the woods. If Gower is to become cricket's Walker, then this could be the redemption of many a tedious fifth day and even the saving of a summer. But he'll have to practise.