Sport on TV; Flamboyant Fergie eclipses Ilie's odyssey

THE BBC has a great deal riding on the broad shoulders of John Inverdale, and you need only look at the colour of Desmond Lynam's hair to see why. It did not get that grey merely as the result of decades spent supporting Brighton and Hove Albion (although that, undoubtedly, has played its part), and as if to underline the point, he has even taken to wearing specs during Match of the Day.

Many will agree that Des is irreplaceable, but one day the Beeb will at least have to try, and Inverdale is by some distance their most promising candidate.

The hunt for the next great communicator is all the more important given that, if current trends persist, talking about sport will soon be all that the terrestrial channels can manage. Last week, for instance, while Sky offered top-of-the-table Premiership football and the latest Test match from the West Indies, their competitors - if that is the word - were all talk. On Side (BBC1), the chat show which Des apparently turned down before Inverdale got the nod, was back for a second run, while over on Carlton, Eamonn Holmes and Will Carling plugged on gamely in The Sports Show. Inverdale was the winner, but only on points.

As anyone who ever listened to his drivetime slot on Radio Five Live will testify, the host of On Side is a rare broadcasting talent, with the ability to switch from grave affairs of state to, say, lawnmower racing in Somerset without breaking stride. The breezy Five Live format suited him ideally, however, and the rather different demands of On Side, which is painfully desperate to be taken seriously, are not quite the same snug fit.

On paper, Monday's opening show had the makings of a half-decent group- therapy session, and not just because Paul Merson was at the top of the guest list. First up, after all, was Ilie Nastase - "Hello, my name is Ilie. I am full of anger" - but it did not quite work out that way, since the older Nastase is relaxed to the point of meditative torpor. He seemed a little miffed, it's true, that his campaign to become mayor of Bucharest had floundered, but then, he had made the crucial mistake of accepting the endorsement of Sting. The long-suffering citizens of Romania, clearly, are just as reluctant as everyone else to forgive him for his post-Police career.

Still, it was worth having Nastase on if only for the brief clip of his Wimbledon final with Stan Smith, which must have mystified younger viewers no end. "What are the funny men doing, Daddy?" countless parents will have been asked. "It's called having a rally, dear. Used to be quite popular once upon a long time ago."

Inverdale's main problem was that, for one reason or another, most of his guests could hardly be described as natural interviewees, including Merson, who has simply done so many that he now trots out the answers on auto-pilot. It was also a little unfair to ask Merson to open the programme trying to look relaxed while standing alone at a bar with a glass of mineral water. This is difficult enough for anyone to carry off but particularly so, you suspect, for him.

In the end, though, Inverdale was the one who really deserved better - someone, for example, like Alex Ferguson, who was on the other side later in the week with Holmes and Carling, and doing wonders for his image in the process. Post-match interviews tend to portray him as a sour-faced whinger (unless, of course, United have lost, in which case you probably won't see him at all). Yet here he was all smiles, and thoughtful, clever and entertaining too - in short, the perfect guest.

The questions were not bad either, although it has to be said that most of the best ones arrived from the audience. Fergie took it all in exceptionally good humour, even the deeply embarrassing interruptions of Shane Richie, whose qualifications to take an active part in a sporting debate are about as credible as ... well, a Daz commercial. Still, his presence did at least show a little imagination on the part of the producers.

Most talk shows have an irritating prat in the audience, but here they had one on the panel instead.

Less amused by the proceedings was Ramon Vega, who must have drawn a very short straw indeed in the White Hart Lane dressing-room to find himself thrust before a deeply sceptical crowd, attempting to explain the goings- on at Tottenham. You could only admire him for trying, and Holmes deserves some credit too, for managing to resist making the obvious comparison between the Spurs back four and a Swiss cheese.

Out on the field of play, meanwhile, the achievement of the week was undoubtedly Mark Ramprakash's century and a half in Barbados. This received the ultimate accolade from the Sky producers, who normally cut away to adverts before the umpire's index finger is even halfway vertical.

For Ramprakash, though, they kept the cameras rolling throughout the weary trudge back to the pavilion, meaning that he not only saved the game for England, but picked Rupert Murdoch's pocket too. Bear that in mind when it comes to the vote for the Sports Personality of 1998.