Sport on TV: Our Darren and a reverse swing of the natural order

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It is at this time of year that football begins to edge cricket aside, as autumn starts to kick summer into touch. The usual pattern has been for the cricket season to be all but clapped out by now - Test series lost, county Championship decided and only the NatWest final to be scuppered by a dew-soaked wicket.

Football, meanwhile, was all eager anticipation. But whether it is down to a sporting version of global warming, the reverse is true this year. Football arrives as an irritating and overbearing intruder in a cricket season which has delivered all manner of thrills with "more to come", as the weather men say. This can only be good news for those who have rediscovered their affection for the game over the past week as the BBC's cricket coverage enjoyed golden days.

First of all, England's Fifth Test victory over South Africa provided a deckchair-gripping finale as Sunday's dramatic play spilled over into Monday morning in order to reach the climax that every England supporter wanted. For the Headingley crowd it was a double triumph because they were also given free admission. Whole families duly arrived at the ground. Even Richie Benaud came over all Keatsian as the cameras picked out the youngsters on their dads' shoulders.

"They'll remember this day for all of their lives," Benaud said, guessing at the dominant emotion, and the kids were probably thinking simply "got in for nowt". What the youngsters actually saw was about half-an-hour's tense cricket in which "our Darren" figured largely, followed by an official ceremony which outlasted one of Fidel Castro's epic speeches.

Virtually every England player bar the unfortunate Graeme Hick was interviewed on the balcony by David Gower, who received a champagne shampoo from Dominic Cork, thereby revealing the exact source of his bottle-blond hair. We had earlier been allowed into the secret confines of the England dressing-room to watch the party get underway. Unfortunately, the England coach David Lloyd - "Bumble" to his players - fumbled to get the champagne bottle open. David, lad, it's all in the wrists - by heck, don't the English Cricket Board coach that sort of stuff these days?

One other feature of the dressing room sequence was the predictable intrusion of the corporate sponsors, doling out Vodafone baseball caps for the players to wear during the presentations. The absence of the blue caps with several lions and a crown on them was a pity at such an historic moment, but several players showed how attached they were to the sponsor's caps by tossing them to the crowd. Indeed Alec Stewart made a principled stand, dispensing with Gower's instructions to collect a very large sponsor's cheque - it was about 6ft by 2ft - and demanding that he be given the trophy for winning the Test series first.

But for the intrusion of the lunchtime news Gower would probably have got round to interviewing every steward on duty, thereby sneaking in a few more mentions for Veuve Clicquot, to which I am sure he is very partial. The party must have broken up at some stage, because the Lancashire players present were on duty the next day as the BBC gave total coverage to the first NatWest semi-final, with the other being played on Wednesday to maximise viewers.

Apart from the straight narrative of who was going to get to the final, there was an obvious subtext for both viewers and commentators to consider, given the public's appetite to see our lads go Down Under this winter and get the Ashes back.

There was some astonishing hitting during both semi-finals with Dominic Cork suggesting he has the ability to bat much higher up the international order, while younger English players such as Ben Smith of Leicestershire and Ben Spendlove of Derbyshire must have made a big impression on the selectors.

With the county Championship still a three-way fight and possible set to go to the last match, and a heavyweight NatWest final between Lancashire and Derbyshire to come, cricket fans have never had it so good.

Indeed, the Leicester-Derby game managed to stage its climax just as ITV were starting their first Champions' League outing of the season with the final now frighteningly imminent next May. Clive Tyldesley, ITV's new chief commentator, told us that the Lodz team taking on Manchester United had shaved their heads because the club's main sponsor is a glue company for wigs. This at least made the sponsors' demand on the England cricket team look more reasonable. But despite its colour this snippet couldn't enliven a drab evening.

"Not a great Polish side here," Bob Wilson suggested with great accuracy at half-time. Indeed given the turmoil in Poland I thought Lodz could easily have been a Strangeways Prison XI bussed in for the night. After all with MUTV, the United plc's own channel starting up soon, it has been shown that you can fool all of the people all of the time.

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