Sport on TV: British summer time, and the ribbing is easy

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The Independent Online
Summer is here: the lark is on the wing, the snail is on the thorn, and the Ashes are on the Beeb. Joy abounding. The remarkable transmogrification of the English players into confident, Aussie-style battlers while their opponents adopt the sheepish, hangdog demeanour until recently patented by Atherton's men is merely the icing on the cake.

Speaking of which, Richie Benaud's hairdo resembles an ever-more elaborate exercise in patisserie, its myriad sweeps and swirls calling to mind a frosted walnut whip or gargantuan vanilla cornet: stick a Cadbury's Flake behind each ear and Richie would be a dead ringer for a "99".

It doesn't matter. Benaud could wear a cardboard box on his head and still be the most dignified cricket broadcaster you will ever come across. Wry of tone, twinkling of eye, with an air of deep knowledge lightly worn, Benaud's enjoyment of the game and of broadcasting is undimmed by the years. When Nasser Hussain dived to catch Greg Blewett off the bowling of Darren Gough early on the first morning of the match, Benaud's instinctive reaction was "Well done". This was relish for the game of cricket well played allied with natural generosity of spirit.

Not that it is impossible to detect a flicker of Aussie patriotism beneath the layer of urbanity. When Mark Butcher surrendered early in England's innings, Benaud commented: "16-2 in reply to the Australians' 118 all out - we've got a game on our hands..." and the flicker became a flame when Alec Stewart holed out soon afterwards. "That," Benaud declared as the ball spiralled towards the waiting fielder, "is 'Goodnight Nurse'."

But when Hussain and Graham Thorpe steadfastly refused to lie down and take their medicine, Benaud's prediction of a close contest proved wide of the mark. Indeed, the remarkable events of the first day turned a long line of sages into turnips.

Mark Taylor should never have opened his mouth about the pitch, having won the toss and decided to bat. "It looks like a pretty good wicket to me," he opined, and the mischievous gods of cricket, ever alert for a hint of hubris, chuckled and rubbed their hands.

Geoffrey Boycott was another to be caught out by the pitch, though one suspects that this might not have been the case had he been holding a bat rather than a microphone. "Touch of movement early on," he mused, having twiddled around with his trusty Yale on about a length, "not too quick. All in all, a pretty good pitch to bat on." Given what it did to the Aussies later on, it is a miracle that the pitch didn't bite the key out of Geoffrey's hand, crunch it up and spit it out.

But with England in the ascendant, Boycott was happy to wolf his humble pie, not normally a dish that he packs in his lunch-box. "Been around a long time, Mark Waugh," Yorkshire's finest noted as the batsman essayed a confident early shot, "a classy player, used all his experience there". Waugh played all around the next one, and there followed the leitmotiv of the morning, the musical clunk of Australian stumps being scattered. "Well, Mark Waugh's experience wasn't much use there," Boycott conceded, and you could hear the grin.

David Gower, a former hero of an Ashes Test at Edgbaston, was another to be overtaken by events. "Ian Healy is a man with a reputation for getting his side out of trouble," he announced as the keeper strode to the wicket. "But he isn't going to do it this time," he added, as Healy plodded back towards the pavilion one ball later. Gower enjoyed his stint at the microphone with Ian Chappell - indeed, the English commentators must have been queueing up for the privilege on Thursday morning. Gower was there to record a rare highlight of the innings. "Well, more good news, Ian," he said. "Australia have reached 50." The silence that followed was as deafening as a Merv Hughes appeal.

Boycott and Chappell resumed their traditional, banter-rich summary act at the end of the BBC's late-night highlights programme. "Four years ago," Boycott boomed, "it took the English lion a hell of a long time to tweak the kangaroo's tail. It was a bit different today." Chappell was philosophical (he hadn't much choice). "It takes me back to '81," he recalled, "when England gave the Australians a right shellacking." This is nothing to do with the application of a thin layer of varnish: it is more like a bollocking administered with high explosive, and a very evocative word it is too.

Outside the commentary box, it was cheering to see the Edgbaston faithful indulging their taste for disguise: one chunk of the crowd sported Elvis Presley masks, another group displayed the perennially popular comedy plastic breasts. It is rumoured that an Antipodean gentleman approached the vendor and requested that a dozen or so masks of The King be sent round to the dressing-room to assist in an incognito exit: anything for an easier ride back to the Heartbreak Hotel (close to M1, TV in all rooms, Benaud's waiting with the highlights...).

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