Sport on TV: Porter brought down to size but Bazza still rules

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The Independent Online
THERE CAN'T be many chat show guests whose opening gambit is to inquire after their host's apparently non-existent sex life, but Richard Cockerill had done his homework when he and his England rugby union team- mate Martin Johnson appeared on Not Melinda's Big Night In (Channel 5, Wednesday), presented by the eponymous Ms Messenger's stand-in, a wee Scotswoman called Gail Porter.

Porter had kicked off promisingly, overwhelmed by Johnson's sheer bulk (in fact Johnson would go down a storm, as it were, at Bulk itself, the London club for big gay men and those who have a thing for big gay men. But don't tell him I said so).

"You're so big!" Porter cried. "You know what big hands mean."

I know what big hands are supposed to mean (or is it big feet, or a big nose?) but Porter was referring to the difficulties in procuring gloves that fit.

"I don't know anything about rugby," she confessed (indeed, some evidence of a researcher's budget would have improved the programme immeasurably. Porter's all-too frequent protestations of ignorance reeked less of Zoo-TV spontaneity than of a more straight- forward amateurishness).

"We've read all about you on the way down on the train," interjected Cockerill. "Was that in Reader's Digest?" Porter wondered.

"There was one quote that said you haven't had sex for 18 months," Cockerill persisted. "Is that true?"

"As I said," Porter went on, "I don't know much about rugby."

"Or about sex," said Johnson. He demonstrated his sharpness later on, too, when Porter asked: "Will Carling. Is he a bit of a donkey?"

"That's not the word on the autocue," said Johnson, inducing blushes from Porter. Heaven knows what the actual word was.

Porter may be the new Melinda Messenger, but she certainly isn't the new Barry Davies. Bazza has been badly missed on Match of the Day lately, but at least the BBC have given him something decent to do, sending him to Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis (highlights, BBC2, Monday- Friday).

If it was up to me, they'd have him fronting everything. He'd be presenting On Side instead of John Inverdale, Sunday Grandstand instead of Ray Stubbs, the indoor bowls instead of David Rhys-Jones, Match of their Day instead of John Motson and Sporting Greats instead of Garth Crooks. Not to mention Crimewatch, Top of the Pops, Question Time, Teletubbies and Late Review. Make it Bazza's House Party and I'd even watch that (there is a sporting element to tonight's edition, apparently, but I hesitate to say any more in case I encourage anyone to tune in. I once had a bad experience, you see, that involved Noel's House Party and the day room of a psychiatric ward, but you don't want to know about that).

The brilliant Big Train comedy series written by the Father Ted people recently had Bazza doing the commentary for the World Staring Championships. A significant choice - the makers obviously realised that as the most intelligent and cultured of all TV sports people, he was easily the best equipped to pull it off, and so he did, dead- panning to perfection.

Though he has mastered several sports in his illustrious career, Bazza's footing is less sure in the tennis commentary box, but he sensibly leaves the technical stuff to his match analyser, concentrating instead on the evidence he can comment on with ease - character, motivation, mood, aggression, the extent to which a player is "up for it". There was also plenty of time available for some of his extravagant metaphors, although during Greg Rusedski's exit at the hands of the American Paul Goldstein, he found himself upstaged by Chris Bailey.

As the second-set tie-break tortuously unfolded, Bailey set off for the distant horizon. "Have you ever been to Magic Mountain, Barry?"

"Yes!" responded Davies, in a tone that conveyed several messages. "Of course I have, dear boy, but where precisely is this going?" was one. But the more forceful implication was "Hold it, sonny. Fancy-dan metaphors are my department."

And fancy-dan it was too, overspent rather than extravagant. "Does this match not remind you of Magic Mountain?" Bailey went on. "You're totally in the dark and you haven't got a clue where it's going. The match so far is so stuttering from Greg, and you really are in the dark, waiting for the next drop or the next high, with all the twists and turns in-between." A case of leave it to Bazza, I think.