Sport on TV: World Cup disappears down Murdoch's plughole

IT'S BEEN a bad week. Being a sour bunch, critics are always happiest when indulging in a good kicking, and the return on Monday of On Side, a favourite bete noire, had me giddy with anticipation. I was, however, cruelly cheated.

Previous incarnations of BBC1's sports magazine have tended to resemble a motorway pile-up, metaphorically speaking, with the guests - often legends in their own screen-time - shoe-horned in among the ghastly studio set- ups and low-grade filmed reports. At last, though, the producers have realised that quality, not quantity, is the key.

Viewers can just about manage without fatuous trimmings and tacky longueurs if what they are served up is intelligent and thought-provoking, and the makers have finally got things right. It's all leaner and fitter: four guests, in and out, no messing, a crisp 40 minutes.

First up were Viv Richards and Angus Fraser, followed by Peter Dumbreck, the man who front-flipped so spectacularly in the Le Mans 24 Hour Race last weekend ("I just braced myself," he said), and the smouldering Goran Ivanisevic.

Richards came on first - a blue chip way to kick off the series, although it has to be said that his responses were, without exception, diplomatically bland and noncommital. A career in politics or sports administration beckons, app- arently, and he was too keen not to offend to say anything incisive - or even mildly interesting. For all John Inverdale's best efforts Richards was about as outspoken as Alan Shearer - although perhaps with good reason: "When you step on people's toes," Richards said of Caribbean politics, "that's serious business. You have to wear body armour".

Better value was Angus Fraser (who came off the bench because the first choice, Jeff Thompson, was unable to oblige after being drunk under the table by City types at a private lunch earlier in the day). The fast bowler described by Inverdale as "England's most consistent player of the last few years" (is that right? Are there statistics?) was brought on to tell us why Our Brave Boys exited the World Cup so lamentably. He offered a devastatingly simple analysis of why England should never expect to beat any of the decent sides ever again: you just can't get the staff.

The domestic set-up is replete with hod-carriers, spear-chuckers, jobbers and journeyman. But there's not a single world class player left in Britain (he didn't state it quite as melodramatically as that, although he nearly did).

England's best bowlers concede around 27 to 30 runs per wicket; the others have men who can deliver at around 20. Similarly, our very finest batsmen average 30-40, as opposed to the 40-50 of better endowed teams. As Fraser said, "immediately that's a deficit of 60-70 runs per innings." A few observers are finally beginning to stare the truth in the face, it seems, led by the likes of Fraser.

One subject Inverdale pressed them both on was the tournament's subterranean profile. Even given England's early exit, he couldn't understand the lack of hoopla, and indeed, the event has managed to get through to the semi- finals without large sections of the populace noticing anything happening.

This is partly to do with the bulk of it being on Sky. Sports other than football suffer immeasurably in terms of public perception when they vanish from terrestrial screens. Look at boxing: apart from the handful of usual suspects, name a British fighter. All right, Joe Calzaghe. Name another. You can't, can you? Frankly, once Murdoch bought up the sport, boxing disappeared down the plughole. Sunday League cricket has gone the same way, although rugby league seems to have weathered the transition. So far.

There was a Sky cock-up to cherish on Wednesday, when Maurice Greene broke the world 100 metres record. At the end of the bulletin on Sky News, the presenter said jovially, "We've got 10 seconds left. What can we show you in 10 seconds?"

Cue the race from Athens. Sadly, they included the athletes on their blocks and the starting gun. Fade to black after 30 metres out...

Still, no one's immune to embarrassing blunders. Sometimes there's a pile-up at one of my synaptic junctions and then, frankly, anything can happen. A few years ago, in a column I used to do for the Bermuda Sun, I was writing about the Super Bowl, which was taking place that year at the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. In my head, that fact became conflated with the then sports editor of the Independent, whose name was similar but crucially different. I referred throughout the piece to the Vic Robbie Stadium. Not the same thing at all.

Unfortunately, in a somewhat similar brainstorm last week, I named the voice-over artiste in last week's C5 documentary Kevin Keegan - Football Messiah? as Craig Brown. It was, of course, Craig Charles, of Red Dwarf fame. Just call me a stupid smeghead.

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