Live coverage of sporting events has evolved significantly since the BBC broadcast Arsenal vs. Sheffield United in January 1927. In that game a second commentator read grid references so listeners could know in which part of the field play was taking place. Now we are treated to a main commentator, an analyser, and three studio pundits. All of whom are highly qualified; usually ex-wprofessionals. This is not a bad thing and, with perhaps the exception of Robbie Savage, who would be better suited to phoning in to his Radio 5 programme than presenting it, they are articulate and thoughtful.
The one worrying trend is the increased informality with which these gems of insight are presented. Listening to and watching the Ashes this winter, I was horrified to hear Messrs Gower and Agnew inquire as to whether ‘KP’ could add to his overnight score. From two such gentlemen it sounded no less alien than Crouchy suddenly producing a chorus of ‘Nessun Dorma’; it just doesn’t fit. In cricket, this bizarre phenomenon began with Freddie Flintoff, whose real name, I’m reliably informed, is Andrew. We now even have nicknames for commentators, with David Lloyd (perhaps taking inspiration from Sting) now known simply as Bumble, joined by Nass, Beefy and Athers.
These nicknames, and the informal approach that accompanies them, can be justified as an attempt to persuade us that the housewife’s perception of cricket as a boring sport is false. Not that it works. The banter between Bumble and co, while endearing and amusing, serves only as a welcome distraction from the cricket, not as an enhancement to it. Their informality is for a useful purpose, and it is only to a point at least they wear ties.
In other sports, though, not only do they stubbornly refuse to wear a tie, but they too adopt this banterous approach. In sports with more inherent interest than cricket, this detracts rather than adding to the spectacle, however.
They tried it on BBC football, with Ian Wright who, in between offering Shaun Wright-Phillips as a miracle cure-all for England’s woes, would insist on calling Steven Gerrard Stevie G, and Lampard Lamps. He left, fed up with his role as the clown to pursue more serious programming; the serious lycra-fest that was Gladiators as an example, the seriously vacuous Live from Studio Five as another.
Good riddance to Wrighty, although since then we’ve had Adrian Chiles, Colin Murray and Paul Gascoigne inflicted on us. Perhaps if Gascoigne had appeared with a fishing rod and some chicken it would have been more entertaining; it could hardly have been less informative. Thankfully Match of the Day has remained relatively pure, with dour Scot Alan Hansen trumping Lineker’s understated cheeriness, and as a result is markedly superior to its Sunday equivalent. Lee Dixon’s often sensible comments are wasted on whichever affable idiot is presenting. The king of football clowns, though, must be Jeff Stelling, whose half naked appearance on a world cup advert was hilarious, and whose jokes on Countdown entertain students and the elderly, but whose interchanges with Chris Kamara on Sky Sports veer between the ridiculous and the even more ridiculous.
Football and rugby do not need these likeable clowns to be interesting. They are naturally fast, exciting sports. Cricket, darts and snooker, though, do need these stooges to hold the attention of the audience as slow and (whisper it) dull sports. So even as a cricket fan I say begrudgingly keep it up Bumble, but give it a rest, Stelling.