Stan Hay's Column: A week long on dry wit and the raindrop shot

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IT DIDN'T need the reappearance on court of J P McEnroe to remind us that Wimbledon is often about a certain four-letter word - rain. All week, the BBC broadcasts more often than not sported a little yellow ball in the top right-hand corner of the screen with the letter "R" on it. Technically this is meant to signify "replay" or "repeat" to the viewer, but what it has really come to signal is "Rain".

Indeed, if you watched every afternoon, the drip-drop of rain began to seem like a form of Chinese water torture, slowly eroding your sanity and sense of place. By Thursday afternoon, it had even got to Des Lynam, sports broadcaster turned weather forecaster for the week. Des had held the fort gamely through all the other disrupted or washed-out days, fending off boredom and confusion with lashings of dry - a doubly apt word - wit.

"This is real rain, not recorded rain," he began in one session, while another was dubbed "one of those days at Wimbledon, a Cliff Richard sort of day". At this, thousands of viewers must have rushed to impale themselves on their remote controls at the prospect of several show-stoppers from Sir Cliff's rain-swept musical Heathcliff. Fortunately, despite being born with the name Webb, Cliff showed no inclination to dip a toe in the water. Nor did Mick Jagger, just one of a number of celebrities picked out by bored cameramen that might have done a turn for the sodden crowds. Anyone for BBC chief Alan Yentob on banjo?

But as Des finally cracked, after another bum steer from the Met Office, he began to fantasise about Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, both lurking in the stands, re-forming for a duet of "Diamond Lights", their 1987 single that reached No 12 in the charts. Of course, Des was only joking, filling in time admir-ably, but after all the hours of frustration, idle talk like that can sometimes become reality, because there's always someone who might take the suggestion seriously. Someone like Garry Richardson perhaps?

Apart from mis-spelling his first name in the last review, I severely underestimated Richardson's talents. Clumsy interviews and leaden features pale into comparison with some of his efforts last week, when he was plainly given orders by the Wimbledon 99 producers to "get some fillers in". They probably hadn't specifically asked him to find a German television weatherman dressed as an English bobby, but Garry delivered none the less.

Franck, as I think he was called, turned out to be Richardson's spiritual brother, so tabloid were his perceptions of "der Englische wedder". Garry milked him so much, however, that the real plods got involved after Franck grabbed a nearby bottle of champagne and began to swig from it. A stern warning followed along the lines of giving the public the wrong idea about London policemen drinking champagne on duty. As if. Garry and Franck went off chastened, but plainly on the verge of a lasting and fruitful friendship. I bet they'll be back as a doubles team next year.

Even allowing for this, the looniest rain moment came at tea-time on Thursday, when Des surrendered to his frustration and went justifiably doolally after the fourth interruption of the day. He began to improvise a commentary on a display of twirling brollies on No 1 Court and then on Centre Court, where the spectators, by nature more conservative, were lifting and lowering their umbrellas in a Wimbledon version of the Mexican wave. Only in England could this happen.

What will we remember apart from the rain? Henman's gut-wrenching last set against Courier for sure. Becker's exit, with the Duchess of Kent in shades and black scarf waving to him like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, no glorious swan-song having turned up. And what about the dismal sight of a half-empty showcourt for Greg Rusedski on a mid-day start? "A lot of people have to come a long way," John Barrett said shamelessly. As a member of Wimbledon's committee he knew only too well that the absent "fans" were just corporate lunchers, still troughing themselves in their expensive marquees.

With rain falling, the debut of Test cricket on Channel 4 looked sure to be scuppered. But when I zapped in around lunchtime it looked as though play was under way, with a shaven-headed black man squaring up to someone in a bright yellow duck suit. Sadly it wasn't the new captain Nasser Hussain bollocking Phil Tufnell for being back late from a party, but Sesame Street. Channel 4's live coverage doesn't begin until the next Test.

In the meantime, the highlights show, Today At The Test (C4), will have to do. Richie Benaud is on board to steady the ship, and the analysis of each session of play is an interesting departure. New gadgets include a computerised wicket-to-wicket strip to help us judge lbw decisions, and an oscilloscope device called the "snickometer" to detect fateful edges. Had Mike Gatting still been playing, it would have been called the "snackometer".

Still, the rain stayed away. But it was that other curse of summer that surfaced on Friday, an England batting collapse.