SPORT ON RADIO: All Talk and little substance as new boys fail test

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The Independent Online
DID YOU hear a strange squeaky, creaky noise at around nine o'clock on Thursday morning? It was the sound of 10,000 Bakelite knobs attached to rusty spindles on ancient valve radios, which had spent the last 40 years firmly tuned to Radio 4 ("and that's not been the same since they stopped calling it the Home Service").

They were being redirected into the uncharted badlands at the top end of the dial, where be dragons, and commercial stations. Honestly, some of the noises up there have to be heard to be believed. Yells, whoops, thick regional accents. Yes, there's no doubt about it, that's Geoff Boycott and the boys. Welcome to the brave new world of Talk At The Test.

Well, it's new anyway. Bravery is another matter, and for that, large swathes of middle England will be deeply grateful. The shock of hearing that the BBC had lost the rights to ball-by-ball commentary to a station with adverts was bad enough, but six months spent pondering what Kelvin MacKenzie might do to jazz it up had been almost too much to bear. Stunnas as summarisers? Jelly instead of cake? There is, after all, no depth to which a man like that won't sink.

But no. The only hint of a gimmick is the "player profile" which arrives with a whooshing noise as the next man in walks out to bat, (although in the first half-hour on Thursday morning, there was barely time to fit the whoosh in before its subject was on his way back). And even these are played with as straight a bat as possible.

Shaun Pollock, for instance, is apparently on his way to being one of the great all-rounders, and while his temper can sometimes get the better of him, afterwards, he will soon be all smiles. Good for him. And never mind that we were told this as Lance Klusener was strolling to the wicket.

Regular listeners to Talk - it may sound unlikely, but apparently a few exist - must have found it all bewildering. This is the station with controversy in its arteries, and confrontation in the veins. And yet the only controversial aspect of the coverage was that Boycott was on the commentary team, in the same week that Sheryl Gascoigne told Tonight about her husband's dark side, and Refuge launched a campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence.

As for confrontation, any hope that the match might amount to one of those was gone within 30 minutes. Even Boycott, who can generally be relied upon to say something at which someone - indeed, probably everyone - will take offence, was reduced to statements of the blindingly obvious. "England are going to be about 300 runs behind with three days to go," he said on Friday afternoon, as Klusener was giving it the old heave-ho, as only Klusener can. "And that's not good."

No, it's not. And what makes it worse is that this was the best he could do when one of the most awesome willow-wielders in the game was going about his business. You can accuse the BBC's Test Match Special team of many things, from self-satisfaction to snobbery, but what they never fail to do is paint a rich picture of what is going on. You do not listen to TMS simply because you can't get to a telly. You listen because you don't need to get to a telly.

There can be few complaints about the expertise of Talk's team, with the likes of Graeme Pollock, Bob Woolmer and Chris Cowdrey on hand. When it comes to the bare bones of describing each delivery, it is more than adequate. But the point about TMS is that it gives you much more than that, from the characters in the crowd to small but significant changes to the cloud formations on the horizon. Talk At The Test is full of ex- telly men like Mark Nicholas who are still adjusting to the pictureless world.

Radio listeners, for instance, do not have a graphic in the top left corner telling them the latest score, so it is helpful to be reminded regularly, and without fail at the end of an over. Even this was frequently beyond them.

They managed to be superior too, which is something of a rarity on Talk. Jack Bannister warned his co-commentator on Thursday to be wary of "confusing listeners with the intricacies of the lbw law", which was an insult to the many listeners who are as expert as the summarisers, and patronising to the few who are not, but are keen to learn.

They will improve, for sure, and they certainly deserve a chance to do so. There was almost as much wailing, after all, when Channel 4 prised the Test coverage away from the BBC, and now, it seems, most punters prefer it. But until they look beyond the 22 yards of bare earth in the middle, and take in the wider picture, Talk at the Test will never come close to matching the TMS experience.