Sport on TV: Hype, tension and a surfeit of half-volleys

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IT WAS only a few weeks back that no less a figure than Sir Paul Fox, a man who had in his time been Head of Everything at the BBC, was questioning the appeal of Test match cricket on terrestrial television. Faced with cricket's desire to make more money from satellite broadcasters and with what looked like yet another losing series for England, Fox's logic seemed soundly based.

But one gallant rearguard action at Old Trafford followed by the confrontation between Mike Atherton's glove and Allan Donald's painted lips at Trent Bridge and suddenly it was game on again, especially as England were deemed to have a chance of winning. Deemed, that is, by the BBC's sports trailer department who milked the footage of Donald's minstrel mouth going into overdrive in order to pump up the public's anticipation of the Headingley showdown.

News reports also added fuel to the fire by telling us that there was a mad scramble for tickets, that an alcohol ban would be enforced on "the notorious Western Terrace" and that spectators in fancy dress were to be banned. We were therefore drawn to the BBC screens on Thursday morning with our bloodlust rising. Would the BBC replace their old soul-limbo theme with music from a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western? Would Geoffrey Boycott conduct a pitch inspection in white Imperial robes with a flaming cross in his hand? Would Alec Stewart swallow the coin at the toss and dare Hansie Cronje to guess whether he was heads or tails? (All these ideas were taken from a top-secret BSkyB presentation document which has fallen into my hands.)

The first disappointment was that Boycs was not allowed to do the pitch inspection, presumably because he is still on a version of broadcasting parole for alleged offences on foreign soil. Instead the task was delegated to David Gower who, despite the bare, cracked appearance of the pitch, nevertheless detected "some moisture below it". Whether Gower was displaying divining expertise here or merely fantasising about a hidden wine cellar I cannot say, but it soon became clear that the decisive element of the first day would not be the pitch but the wind.

Out on the pitch the gusts so disconcerted Donald that he could barely get a ball on line let alone threaten a dismissal and when he finally came face-to-face with Atherton his first delivery ended in an anti-climactic wide. Up in the commentary box the wind factor was even stronger as Boycott continued to press the case for an imminent bloodbath. "You'll get batsmen coot in `arf at `eadingley on overcast days like this," he promised.

It took the arrival of the evergreen Richie Benaud to bring some perspective to the proceedings as he calmly but accurately noted "one of the more ordinary sessions of bowling". I have long believed that, like the late James Hunt in motor racing, Benaud is the ultimate reader of his sport because he neither sells it short nor sells it cheap. He won't play the hype game, preferring to find interest in all the minor stratagems that go into making cricket's subtext.

It was Benaud who first dared to point out that after all the pre-fight froth there was "a disappointing crowd". Those of us who have studied these matters could have guessed that the Tykes would hold on to their money for the first day because there was a risk of a shower. There was also a notable absence of fancy dress, although 10 men had managed to get into the ground posing as Test-class English batsmen, but they were soon found out. Indeed when Graeme Hick came in to face Donald, Boycott dangerous predicted "a good hour's combat". If only.

The indelible point to be made about cricket, whether it is hyped or not, is that the game can change with every ball - who could have guessed that England would spill three catches in almost as many balls on Friday afternoon? - so that being lured into making predictions is really the pursuit of fool's gold.

In the BBC's other main sports coverage of the week, the Stockholm Grand Prix (BBC2), many of the athletes were in pursuit of a diamond awarded to anyone who broke a stadium record. Given that athletics has become a pretty sick blend of narcissism and leisure-wear marketing this seemed entirely in keeping with the spirit of the sport. I felt particularly sorry for the poor Swedish girl charged with handing a bouquet of flowers to the winners as they crossed the line. No sooner had the competitors received their little gift than they tossed them into the crowd without a look. Nice.

Had any of Chelsea's footballers been so rewarded in the Gelderland Tournament (C5), they would have had trouble finding a crowd to toss their flowers to. Despite a state-of-the-art stadium with retracting roof, and teams such as Flamengo and Atletico Madrid as well as their own Vitesse Arnhem, the fans could smell a training exercise dressed up as a tournament a mile away. What price the European Super League if and when it comes around?

Greg Wood is on holiday