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He's handsome, he's sexy, he was absolutely sodding amazing at the football...but our boys are a bit uncomfortable with default reverence. He's a pundit...
How does half of this column spend the hours it isn't watching football on the TV? Watching cricket on the TV, of course. (The other half of this column, being from The North East, has been lured into watching some recent England cricket on account of Liam Plunkett being from Middlesbrough). So what are the similarities and differences between the ways our nation's two best and most important sports are televised?
Aside from the odd commentator bugbear (Nick Knight! Stop sitting on the fence! Sir Ian Botham! Stop complaining about the field placings and how you would have done it differently - you were, with massive respect due to your awesomeness with bat and ball, absolutely bobbins as a captain! Shane Warne! Stop bullying young Alastair!) most fans seem happy with the Sky Sports product. By contrast, a great many football fans seem to actively hate the product and personalities of their sport. The savage vitriol dished out to the likes of Adrian Chiles online is a strange cultural phenomenon, no doubt, and it's hard to think of a counterpart in another sport.
The critical mass of nastiness around football is of course partly a result of its enormous popularity and omnipresence in the national life because, when many humans gather for any reason, there will be more than a few a-holes, and they'll often be the loudest voices. Overexposure, it's fair to say, is not a problem that cricket currently faces. On Friday, half of this column went in 15 pubs that show sport in central London (didn't have a drink in all of them, honest) before finding one that had the cricket on the telly, and this during an exciting Test match, at Lord's, against India.
You could argue that it's a damn shame that cricket is only available to pay-TV subscribers and worry about how this might damage the long-term support of the game if youngsters don't get to watch any cricket on telly. Oddly, you very rarely hear the social exclusion argument about football, but the prevailing wisdom in cricket seems to feel that if young folks cannot watch the sport, they won't be fans in later life. We'll see, we guess. Anyhow, this is really a problem for the sport's governing body, not the company that televises it.
On the subject of the youth, a phrase you hear often on cricket TV commentary is "for any young cricketers watching, that's a great example of how to..." To hear such an educational piece of punditry or commentary on football is extremely rare.
The only recent example we can call to mind has been Alan Shearer doing a little film about penalty-taking before the World Cup final. There was the quirky and interesting detail about how he always put the valve of the ball pointing up, but by and large, the England legend was unable to offer much insight into the actual technique. Compared to, for instance, the brilliant Cricket Masterclasses that Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Kevin Pietersen etc. have done, it feels like a missed trick. We would really like to watch, e.g., Rio Ferdinand and Shearer do a nice long technical thing about exactly how you mark and gain (fair or unfair) advantage at a corner, say. Rather than saying general statements like "Well you've got to be strong there." How?
Producers of the new season's football on TV! Sit up and take note - here's an idea you can pass off as your own brilliance. Create regular short instructional films of your pundits relating, explaining and demonstrating their personal experience of taking free-kicks, tackling, being tackled, making passes, running into a hoarding or head-butting a streaker - anything that is something we cannot have done. We'd like to know exactly why so many players' weaker foot is little more use than a swinging brick. Do they not work on using it? We need details, not generalisations. We know you don't understand this and think viewers are all grunting idiots who are ten pints the wrong side of a quiet drink, but honestly, the appetite is there.
All of the good stuff to come out of the World Cup coverage was this kind of 'what does it feel like?', 'what does it take?' type of analysis. Add in some actual discussion of technique and in-game tactics would enrich the coverage so much. They've already got ex-players there... so what's the problem?
Not to criticise any one broadcaster in particular but it feels that they don't trust the viewer to look at the sport in depth. That's part of a larger problem that has dogged football coverage since the year dot. The people making the programmes, to a certain extent, think that you - yes, you sir! You madam! - are a bit of a thicky who will take what he or she is given. We deserve more.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
Check out John's new series of crime novels about life, death, sex and UEFA Cup football.
Or Alan's illustrated sports books here.