Sport on TV: Lights, cameras and nothing like enough action

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The Independent Online
Dashed confusing, this floodlit cricket business. Last week's match between Warwickshire and Somerset (Sky Sports 1) was notionally a Sunday league fixture but there it was plastered all over Wednesday evening. Presumably the Keep Sunday Special crew will be delighted at the uncluttering of the Sabbath, but how long will it be before the Keep Wednesday Wakeful campaign rises up against the pyjama game's advance on the midweek schedules?

It wasn't Sky's fault that no amount of illumination could light up an utterly dull match, but they have to shoulder the blame for long spells of tediously nit-picky commentary. The combination of Bob Willis and Ian Botham may once have struck fear into the world's leading batsmen but yoked together at the microphone they are more Dozy and Snoozy than Speedy and Streaky.

Botham's long digression on the duties of the third umpire when a player's hat falls on the ball was as riveting as listening to paint dry even if his objective - to have Somerset awarded an extra five runs - might have gone some way to evening up a one-sided evening. The BBC's Test match team are a class apart at present, although Ian Chappell has more axes to grind than a lazy ironmonger.

The manufacture of excitement where there is none has long been a Sky trademark, and another is the cinematic trailer. Their latest epic, a somewhat unnecessary reminder that the football season will soon be upon us, features the actor Sean Bean, best known to television buffs as Sharpe, best known to football fans as a Blade, in both cases the tough-talking champion of hopeless causes.

This time Bean's mission is to convey the national feeling for the game, which he does by striding purposefully towards the camera as if about to chin it, all the while declaiming a hyperbole-rich rant. Football is, he declares, a passion, a religion, a way of life and in short barely less important to the average Briton than breathing. Grandiloquent tosh, but by all accounts a wow with the younger viewers. Sky, Bean concludes, understand how we feel about the game. Well of course they do - that is how they work out how much they can get away with charging us to watch it.

Match of the Eighties (BBC1) transported us back to a time when the game could be watched for free, but before we get too rosy-spectacled about the fairly recent past we should also recall some of the grimmer things about football 15-odd years ago, like rathole stadia, riot-happy fans and Kevin Keegan's experimental career as an easy-listening artiste.

Danny Baker was our guide, a man almost over-qualified to comment on an era of rampant bad taste. Danny introduced the show in a yellow and green bomber jacket and a baseball cap which bore the words "Taylor Made". Just for a moment the thought occurred that he might be flouting corporation rules on sponsorship but surely there are more salubrious spots on which to park your logo than Baker's bonce. Sponsors would be equally ill-advised to supply Danny with boots as his efforts to kick-start the series with a shot on goal were as off-target as his dress-sense.

Settling in to unseen voiceover mode - much the best way to watch him - Baker quickly reaffirmed his cheery Cockney chappy credentials by wittily pointing out that such was the length of the dole queues on Merseyside in the early 1980s there were more people employed as footballers than in any other job. Cue mass channel-hopping in the Liverpool area.

Those that did switch will have missed clips of one of Merseyside's finest- ever sides in their pomp - not that Everton fans will have minded. But Liverpool's Scottish enforcers, Dalglish, Souness and Hansen, did not have things all their own way in the early Eighties. Cyrille Regis was romping through the middle for West Bromwich Albion (he might have saved his energy if he had known how many years he had ahead of him in the game), another player destined to carry his boots far and wide was signing for Arsenal ("Hopefully it's just the one move and now I'm established for life" - Clive Allen), Butch Wilkins had hair, and young Glenn Hoddle was looping long balls for Spurs and England, prompting a vintage shaft of wit from Jasper Carrott: "They say Glenn Hoddle has found God. I thought, 'Blimey, what a pass...'"

But it is not the passing skills of Hoddle that take the breath away, it is the skimpy shorts. Hoddle, Peter Barnes of West Brom and the "Blond Bombshell" Gary Shaw of Aston Villa all capered around in little numbers resembling hot pants or modern designer underwear. None of these players had any qualms about diplaying their class on the field. But they didn't leave much else to the imagination either.