Sport on TV: Cueing up to see the new kids on the black

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The Independent Online
IT MAY BE stating the obvious, but you don't christen a sporting event The Skoda Grand Prix (BBC) unaware of the assorted jokes that the title sets up.

There is the same kind of knowingness at work here as there would be if, say, Today in Parliament was suddenly renamed The Price is Right. The fact that the grand prix in question is not about little Eastern European cars racing at speeds in excess of 10mph, but an early-season snooker tournament in Derby, may have disappointed some viewers, not least those of us who have always wanted to let Murray Walker loose on a commentary over the green baize.

Still, the snooker itself has proved entertaining enough for anyone with free afternoons and no need to go to bed early. The principal fun has been provided by a new generation of cue-masters - all in their teens or early twenties - who have been overturning the established order in a big way. By midnight on Thursday, both Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis had been elbowed aside, joining James Wattana, Alan McManus, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Peter Ebdon in the category 'scattered seeds'.

Now, OK, in the short, nine-frame format The One- Armed Man would be even money against Richard Kimble, but what's 'interesting' is that those doing the blowing away would have been still at junior school when the great contests of 10 or 12 years ago were taking place. These kids grew up watching snooker making its breakthrough into the serious dosh, and almost without exception, they now look like close-cropped, blond, steely-eyed assassins, who make Steve Davis seem like Alex Higgins by comparison.

Hendry's conqueror, Dave Harold, is a dead-ringer for the scourge of Wattana and O'Sullivan, John Higgins (no relation), while if it were not for his Beano waistcoat - bought for him by his girlfriend Tracy - Jimmy Michie could be their lost triplet. This raises the question of whether some bizarre genetic experiment was executed in the mid-Eighties, along the lines of The Stepford Wives, to produce these well-cued clones. Their individual personalities will emerge in time, but this week, for all their skills, they've looked like a forecourt full of Skodas.

Thankfully, there was no shortage of character in the two big England v Spain football matches. Kevin Keegan's vibrant Newcastle United took their feet off the accelerator too soon against Athletic Bilbao (BBC 1, Tuesday), but the game was given a thoughtful, perceptive reading by the commentator Barry Davies, whose football pedigree has often been undermined by his willingness to enthuse about badminton and hockey.

There was some muttering when Davies was handed this year's World Cup final in place of John Motson, but he did well there and his claims to a more substantial role in BBC's football coverage now look richly deserved. Motson has always been able to get by with his brand of schoolboy, Panini- stickers enthusiasm, but since he came back from America, he's been prone to substituting inchoate groans of passion for words, as if something untoward is happening in his grey flannel shorts. Davies is altogether more grown up, being better suited to 'The Nation's Game, the Nation's Channel' solemnity of the Beeb's football trailers, and to the erudite analysis of Alan Hansen.

All this may be part of the Corporation's reaction to ITV's determinedly gimcrack approach to the game. Their European Champions' League (ITV, Wednesday) was preceded by another outing for the wretched Oddballs (TWI for Carlton), an illegitimate offspring of 'What Happened Next?' and It'll Be Alright on the Night. Hosted by GMTV's Eamon Holmes, the programme offers hackneyed impressions of sporting personalities, celebrity non-interviews, and 'funny' clips of sporting mishaps, which this time included tumbling downhill skiers, bobsleigh accidents and an athletics official being speared by a javelin. Holmes smirkingly assured us that nobody had actually been hurt in any of the clips but you were left wondering how long it might be before they get round to showing Ayrton Senna's crash to a laugh-track.

The thrilling Manchester United-Barcelona match took most of the bad taste away, but it was punctuated by another of those 0891 quizzes which insults the viewers' intelligence and their phone bills in the cause of prize-giving. The last one was won by somebody called 'Steve from Stevenage'. Given the scale of corporate bank- rolling behind the Champions' League, it should be possible to send the population of a small town to the next game for nothing. 'Eighty million viewers in 107 countries,' Bob Wilson crowed to ITV's latest acquisition, the England manager Terry Venables, about the Ford-Reebok-sponsored broadcast.

At this, the mind flashed up an image of Tel's former employer at work on his Amstrad calculator, working out the potential takings of a pay-per-view European Super League, before faxing the figures to 'Rupe'. Enjoy it for free while you can, folks.

Giles Smith returns next week