Sport on TV: Backtracking on a track for super bowlers

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE was put out by the Jamaican Cricket Association's unilateral decision to turn cricket into a blood sport, but no one felt the disappointment more keenly than Mark Nicholas, Sky television's man on the spot. It was not so much the prospect of having to fill for the small matter of four days and five hours, or even the thought of nice Mr Murdoch losing several million pounds' worth of advertising revenues. No, what really seemed to irk Mark was that he would have to miss out on his sightseeing.

There was a look of deep and genuine regret on his face as he reeled off a list of the places they had been planning to show us, Bob Marley's house and the best swimming pool on the island among them. Instead, they ran the same hour's-worth of action again and again, and the funny thing was, it got better every time.

It helped, of course, that when you watched the repeat, it was in the knowledge that no one had lost their life on what Nicholas immediately dubbed the "Track of Terror". First time around, on the other hand, the footage was arguably the most frightening sports broadcast since the last re-run of Rollerball, and even James Caan's futuristic gladiator might have thought twice about trotting out to face Courtney Walsh on what Ian Botham described as a corrugated roof.

It was an opinion which Geoffrey Boycott would doubtless have shared, had it not been for the unfortunate business in the French courts which persuaded Sky to drop him. A good thing too, since if he'd started poking his house keys into the cracks on this pitch, he would have risked losing them for good, and while some might insist that it takes one to know one, even armchair fans thousands of miles away could see that this track was a horrible old bruiser.

And brief though it was, what incredible entertainment the First Test provided. Every single ball was unmissable (not to mention unplayable), with the potential to separate a batsman from either his wicket or his limbs.

Which was your favourite? Was it the one which would have yorked Alec Stewart, had it not instead decided to climb straight over the keeper's head with at least a foot to spare? Or the next ball, which pitched on a length and then bounced half a dozen times on its merry way through to David Williams? The whole strange affair may yet be expunged from Wisden, but anyone who witnessed it will surely recall Stewart's undefeated 28- ball innings as one of the finest of his career.

It is a measure of the Jamaican ground staff's incompetence that the cricket made Superbowl XXIII (Channel 4) seem positively tame by comparison. And this despite the presence in Green Bay's defensive line of one Gilbert Brown, who is so huge that even his fellow linebacker Kevin Greene, who took up so much space in the commentary box that the rest of the presenters were in danger of suffocation, was moved to describe him as a "monster".

Monster or not, though, Brown ended up on the losing side, as the Denver Broncos confounded the Las Vegas betting line - which reckoned they would need a 12-point start just to get competitive - and pulled off one of the most unexpected triumphs in gridiron history.

Even Gary Imlach, Channel 4's impossibly smooth front man, seemed almost dumbstruck by what was unfolding before his eyes, and who could blame him? Imlach exudes the self- assurance that is born of careful preparation, but apparently even he could not be bothered to script a few one-liners and links on the laughable off-chance that the game might actually turn out to be competitive.

In the decade and a half since Channel 4 launched American Football on a bemused public, its presentational roster has had a few ups but also, rather appropriately, at least four downs. The veteran American broadcaster Frank Gifford anchored a season, which was good, but then so did the Thicko Twins (or were they called the Dangerous Brothers? Who remembers or cares?), who were not.

In Imlach, though, they have turned up one of the most natural presenters of any sport on any channel. Blitz!, the weekly NFL round-up which he fronts on Saturday morning, is something of a minor masterpiece, mixing hard news, features, nostalgia and competitions in just the right proportions, all of it leavened with a dry wit which never strays into flippancy.

It only makes you wonder why the BBC insist on trying to turn great sportspeople into great communicators, when there are plenty of young broadcasters with the gift of the gab who could do the job rather better. It would be churlish and unfair, of course, to mention too many names, but at this very moment, Gary and Sue may be wondering why their ears have suddenly started to glow bright red. And without wishing to give too much away, in the case of one of them, there is an awful lot to glow.