Sport on TV: Redemption songs and a turn for the verse

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The Independent Online
THE SUDDEN reappearance of Mike Gatting in last weekend's Sunday Grandstand (BBC 2) as he was called up to the England squad on stand-by set the theme for the week's televised sport - the redemption of former villains. Having been struck down by barmaiditis, rebelitis and, most recently, Warneitis, it was almost touching to see the cubist cricketer in the frame to face the South Africans he had once so cynically embraced. Plainly, the mercy of Lord's knoweth no bounds. That he eventually wasn't selected for the Third Test at The Oval may have had something to do with his increasingly greying beard, for he's now becoming a dead ringer for the AWB's Eugene Terreblanche.

The theme of forgiveness was central to a tribute to another sporting Machiavellian, Manchester United's Eric Cantona. On The Line (BBC 2) forsook the breathless pursuit of investigative journalism, and came up with a beguiling, gentle montage of poetic offerings on sport. Sean O'Brien's homage to one Eric was spoken against music from another Erik, Satie, whose piano lilts were the perfect accompaniment to the words - 'gliding down your private corridor' - and to the images of the Frenchman's sublime footballing skills. 'This is the poor man's art, where millions possess a gift,' intoned O'Brien, before the images darkened as 'Monsieur Hyde' took over and the ball was forgotten.

His hero's tendency to swat opponents and terrorise referees was not exactly glossed over in the pictures, but it certainly deserved more than the liberal admonition 'to leave thuggery to the thugs' in the rhyme. Poetry should be the perfect vehicle to explore the paradox of Cantona's personality, especially as the man himself is said to have a taste for Rimbaud.

In any case, Cantona may find himself beyond redemption pretty soon this season, with football referees already slavishly following the 'jobsworth' line handed down to them by Fifa over the summer. What are the chances of Eric being booked for having his shirt-collar permanently erect, I wonder? Indeed, O'Brien's final line - a riposte to Alan Hansen's infamous criticism of Cantona on Match of the Day - 'this 'luxury' is why the game survives', inadvertently had the tone of an elegy.

No such nuances clouded Gary Newbon's welcome to Wednesday's The Big Fight (ITV), as he introduced the night's star attraction 'Prince' Naseem Hamed. 'We've been looking for exciting newcomers in British boxing and this young man is the best,' he trumpeted. The sub-text here was how ITV were about to replace one hero-villain, Chris Eubank, since departed to that boxing ring in the Sky, with another.

Naseem, the European bantamweight champion, was shown in his previous fight, mercilessly baiting his beaten opponent, then celebrating with a tumble of handstands across the ring. This is guaranteed raw meat for the ITV boxing audience, which has been fed an increasing diet of suet pudding where Eubank was concerned. Newbon was quick to distance himself from Naseem's more controversial antics, but rather like Nixon and the Watergate burglars, this seemed to be more in pursuit of an alibi than the moral high ground.

In the event, Naseem behaved impeccably in the fight, although his strutting arrival in his leopardskin trunks and Yemeni head- dress to the sound of native drums, might have persuaded the less sober viewer that they were getting a Tarzan movie instead. The fact that Naseem unashamedly celebrated both his Arab breeding and his Sheffield upbringing proved an endearing cross-cultural mixture, not least because he can sound just like Geoff Boycott doing a pitch inspection. 'Boom] Oh, yeah] Baby, good shot]' were among his comments in thickest Tyke, as he watched himself on replay after the fight.

Naseem's actual boxing abilities are discussed elsewhere, but there's no doubt that he has what ITV wants, and that he already knows this. Newbon imparted that the promoter Frank Warren had plans for lots of fights for Naseem (surprise, surprise), so the lad will be under the greatest scrutiny as he treads the fine line between public hero and pantomime villain. 'ITV - respect]' was his parting shot - lad, tha' knows where tha' bread's buttered. Meanwhile, Newbon, beaming with relief, announced modestly: 'This is a future world champion - and here on ITV]'

Finally, in the early hours of Friday morning, the redeemed South African team marched back into the Commonwealth Games (BBC) after 36 years of exile. Preceded by an hour or so of stodgy pageant and costumed tomfoolery, including musical Mounties and dancing lacrosse players - Prince Edward's presence recalled the night of It's a Royal Knockout - the 112-strong squad received a genuinely touching welcome from the Canadian crowd. 'Racial intolerance is banished,' announced David Coleman in his best press- release-reading mode. So there, it's official.

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