Trailer terror and a Whirlwind recovery

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
IT'S NOT often that you catch the BBC telling fibs, but the latest promotional clip for their sports coverage purveys a gargantuan pork pie. We see a moodily lit, intense quartet. It's Desmond Lynam, Jimmy Hill, Trevor Brooking and Alan Hansen, discussing their dream acquisitions, like schoolboys constructing Fantasy Football teams at break-time. "This season," a portentous voice-over growls, "there's only one team to watch. BBC Sport."

This is beyond hyperbole: it's an absolute whopper. Take last Wednesday night, for instance. If the team you wanted to watch was, say, Newcastle United, then BBC was not the channel to select: Kevin Keegan's boys were strutting their fancy stuff on ITV, along with one or two other fairly useful outfits. What were the "team to watch" on Sportsnight (BBC1) offering in direct competition? Boxing, a couple of goals, rehashed rugby league, and snooker.

It was unfortunate for Sportsnight that their only live action, a competitive and entertaining European middleweight title fight between Richie Woodhall and Dravko Kostic, will have been compromised in the eyes of many viewers by recent sad events. But Des had a line ready. "We believe that young men have the right to pursue a ring career," he said earnestly, "and that you have the right to watch it. Or not." Admirable stuff, but with a hint of expediency. Subtext: the editor believes that if he drops the boxing he's going to be left with a pretty thin show.

Harry Gration's canter through the highlights of the Rugby League World Cup will have gripped only the armchair anthropologist with its clips of Tongan ritual greetings and Cook Islanders' group celebrations. Gration's analysis was surgical in its precision: "Come Saturday, though," he opined, "only one thing matters: winning the World Cup." Shame, after all that money Maurice Lindsay spent on booking Status Quo.

Then Des, wearing a yellow jacket seemingly constructed of sisal matting, introduced the BBC's midweek football coverage. This consisted of precisely 90 seconds of Liverpool's defeat of Southampton, and exactly 55 seconds of Tottenham's draw with Everton. A generous 20 seconds of the former snippet was devoted to a footballing tautology, an ugly incident involving Matt Le Tissier.

Next, Des whisked us to the Crowtree Leisure Centre, Sunderland, the sparsely populated venue for the Skoda Grand Prix snooker tournament.

What a title to conjure with. You can imagine the top-level meeting at Skoda HQ. "I've cracked it, boss," says the marketing man. "You said we needed a racier image, so I've blown this year's budget on a grand prix team. The star's a young, square-jawed Scot." The directors murmur among themselves: Skoda Team Williams has a catchy ring to it. But can they really afford David Coulthard? Then in walks Stephen Hendry . . .

There was a time when snooker on television was exciting, when the Hurricane was blowing strong, Steve Davis was interesting and Dennis Taylor made inverted eyewear into a fashion statement. But on Wednesday the only Higgins we got to see was John, who in charisma terms should be nicknamed "Dead Calm".

His opponent was Jimmy White, but even the Whirlwind seems a little short of puff these days. For a start, he's starting to look like a human being. In his heyday Jimmy could have stepped straight from the pages of one of Anne Rice's gothic novels: stick-thin, cadaverously pale, eyes like burning embers. But nowadays, sadly, he's filled out a little and got a little healthy colour in his cheeks. It's very strange. Perhaps he's taken up eating, or sleeping. His hair also seems to have undergone something of a transformation. Has he done a Gooch?

As for the action, "the first two frames were pretty lively", the commentator confided. We joined the action, though, in frame three, and pretty soporific stuff it was too. Higgins strolled to a straightforward victory and White, waving genially to the crowd, wandered off to raise hell with a mug of Ovaltine. Right now, the only way to make snooker on television exciting is to watch it in a war zone.

Earlier in the week, Panorama (BBC1) debated the question "Should boxing be banned?" A sport was on trial, and the prosecuting counsels, Roy Hattersley and Dr Fleur Fisher, had all the most emotive evidence. The defence case was presented by Colin Hart of the Sun and Nicky Piper, who when he isn't in the ring is the chairman of the Professional Boxers' Association. You can easily tell when Piper swaps one role for the other: he puts his glasses on.

Hattersley, his technique honed by years of parliamentary bickering, was easily the most impressive debater. His intellectual dissection of the former European welterweight champion Gary Jacobs was as ruthless in its own way as anything that Jacobs is likely to have faced in the ring. But despite their skills, and some pretty compelling evidence, the anti-boxers were soundly defeated when the studio audience voted at the end of the debate. No doubt the editor of Sportsnight was mightily relieved.