James Lawton: Brilliant Bumble disproves theory that good players make bad commentators

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Howard Cosell wasn't everybody's cup of tea or cold beer, but for a substantial chunk of the last century he was the richest and most celebrated sports commentator of them all.

A former New York lawyer of daunting ego, he died in 1995, the apex of his fame long crumbled away, yet quite strangely he was brought back to life this week during one of the many engaging stints put in by David "Bumble" Lloyd from the broadcasting booth of the third Test in Cape Town.

This was odd because Cosell reserved much of his vast reservoir of contempt for those sportsmen who, because of their achievements on the field or in the ring, were handed a microphone almost at the moment of their retirement.

Cosell despised such figures mostly because, in his opinion, they could not begin to fulfil his own mantra, which was, he never ceased proclaiming, to "tell it how it is".

This was something beyond the ex-players, who he referred to sneeringly as the "jockocracy". The "jocks" – or former players – were too protective of their old friends in professional sport, too keen to trot out the old excuses.

Cosell's mountainous self-regard was once brilliantly punctured by Red Smith, the great New York sportswriter, at a cocktail party. Smith was hailed by Cosell from across a crowded room. "Tell these bozos," shouted Cosell, "how many great broadcasters there are in the world." After a delicious pause, Smith declared, "One less than you think, Howard."

The truth was that Cosell was, whatever you thought of his personality, a great broadcaster. He alternately provoked and delighted his audience, won the respect of Muhammad Ali and, when he moved to the pioneering Monday Night Football broadcast, sports bars all over North America bought up second-hand television sets for ritual smashing by their best customers. The Church of Monday Night Football was established and there was only one candidate for Pope or Chief Rabbi.

However, though Lloyd breaks most of Cosell's cardinal rules, including offering what would certainly be deemed regrettable fuzziness over this week's burning issue of whether Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson were guilty of ball tampering, there is an increasing belief here that he too is one of the great natural sports broadcasters.

He has a rare genius for refusing to take himself seriously while never trivialising his subject. There is quite a bit of mockery, though mostly self-directed, and an irrepressible joy in noting the foibles of the game he covers, and used to both play and umpire.

This gave him a beautifully exploited opportunity this week to recall some of the more predatory umpires of the past, including the one who demanded to stand at Sir Richard Hadlee's end because he had a very good chance of getting five lbws before lunch.

Lloyd is unlikely to be admitted to the pantheon of commentators occupied by the likes of Richie Benaud, Peter O'Sullevan and Peter Alliss, but when he announces that it is hot enough in Cape Town to "crack the flags" and takes us back through the delirium that came to Dale Steyn when he dismissed Kevin Pietersen in the second innings you know you are in the hands of a genuine comic talent.

What Lloyd offers, with the backing of men like David Gower, Sir Ian Botham, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain, who also confound the Cosell theory that ex-sportsmen are inherently unwilling or incapable of bringing insights into their former profession, is knowledge, easy communication and, most of all, a generally objective example of deep affection for his subject.

The result is an increasingly refreshing contrast to the mostly glum stridency of football coverage. To be fair, cricket does offer a wider, gentler tapestry, and with much more time to paint it. That the men who are contracted to produce the picture have a rich and intimate knowledge of all the nuances of what they are seeing – who better than Atherton, for example, to discuss the unfolding defiance of Collingwood when you remember the way he faced down his great adversary Allan Donald in Johannesburg? – is an advantage that is rarely squandered in the way Cosell always believed it would be.

In the end Cosell simply couldn't maintain the confidence of his audience. His towering estimation of his own judgement toppled in a series of controversies.

His biggest reverse came when he said on air, "The little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?" He was referring to the elusiveness of the slight, black Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett, and it didn't matter that he had applied the phrase before to white players operating in the same position. Or that he had fiercely defended Ali when he refused to serve in Vietnam and changed his name from Cassius Clay. Then Cosell declared, "They want another Joe Louis, a white man's black man. Don't those idiots realise that Cassius Clay was the name of a slave owner? Had I been black and my name was Cassius Clay, I damned well would have changed it."

Ali provided the most generous epitaph, declaring, "Howard was a good man, I liked being interviewed by him more than anyone else. We always put on a good show. I can hear him saying, 'Muhammad, you're not the man you used to be.' I hope to meet him in the hereafter."

Understandable enough, given the great man's experience. However, the evidence here says that Bumble would make for a more enjoyable collision.

Mancini summons Vieira's experience to play mind games

Scepticism about Patrick Vieira's ability to remake himself at Manchester City at the age of 33 is understandable enough – especially when you remember how profoundly upstaged he was by his successor Cesc Fabregas when Juventus came calling at Highbury.

Yet Roberto Mancini is plainly no fool. His move for Vieira has to be put down to more than whimsy. At the very least it will intrigue the man at the other side of town who is so desperate to find a touch of authority in midfield. No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson was also startled when Mancini made an overture to someone from his own past, Juan Sebastian Veron.

What seems to be beyond doubt is that the new manager of City is hell-bent on providing his team not just with notable talent but also men with a background of some achievement and, perhaps, a yearning for a little more before they are finished.

This kind of philosophical content was not so apparent in the creations of Sven Goran Eriksson and Mark Hughes. Perhaps Mancini is taking a little time out to play a few mind games. Sooner or later, most winning managers do.

Don't grimace: referrals work

Apart from another superb Test match, we saw more incontrovertible evidence that the referral system is moving from strength to strength.

On the third day three howling mistakes were quickly, emphatically avoided.

Most interestingly two of the players most eager for the referrals, and most strident in the belief that a wrong decision had been given, were both indignant when the third umpire's decision came through. Graeme Swann and Ashwell Prince both shook their heads in frustration and disbelief.

Now, presumably, they are wiser men. Cricket is also a huge beneficiary. On its most important stage, players are being forced to examine their instincts more quickly and more profoundly than ever before. It is good for the conduct of the game and the maturity of the players involved.

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