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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Co-commentator McCoist deserves to be top dog but Swann's yapping is hideous

The Thursday column

Graeme Swann's spells with the microphone on BT Sport are impossible to face
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The colossal range of abilities shown by former sportspeople when they try their hand at commentating and punditry never fails to amaze me, and this week I stumbled across a potential superstar and another aspiring god of the gantry who is so bad it is almost bewildering.

First, the positive. Since Andy Gray’s career as the undisputed king of the commentators’ sidekicks ended in 2011 the quest for a successor has been almost entirely futile.

Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher are both really good in the role but are better as studio analysts, while others have been given their chance and either failed and disappeared or failed but still get used to this day.

Steve McManaman is not the worst example of a dud, but it will take him years to rebuild his reputation after deciding Jesse Lingard rather than the phenomenal David de Gea was the best player on the pitch when Arsenal and Manchester United served up one of the best Premier League matches of the century last Saturday.

By joyous contrast, on Tuesday night Radio 5 Live deployed Ally McCoist in the role of co-commentator and within a minute it was clear he is a natural. 

The former Rangers striker has, unbeknown to me, been doing a few stints for BT Sport on Scottish matches and the word from those who have heard him is that he is the real deal. That came across on Tuesday when he ticked the key boxes of adding insight to what the main commentator had said, injecting a bit of humour into proceedings and delivering his words in a lively, engaging way.

Given how few decent co-commentators there are it would be a missed opportunity if BT did not use him for their more high-profile fixtures or if Sky failed to nab him and make him their top dog. Certainly he would be a great addition to either the BBC or ITV World Cup teams. 

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Meanwhile, there are many bowlers us mere cricket fans would dread to face. Holding, McGrath and Johnson are just three who would render us quivering wrecks if we were taking guard against them.

But those pace legends have been swept aside by Graeme Swann, whose attempts to operate as a competent commentator on Test cricket are so bad that I literally cannot face it when it is his turn in the gantry on BT Sport.

Swann is so awful that one wonders what sort of coaching and mentoring goes on when people make the switch from pitch to commentary box.

When the second Test crackled into life on the fourth day I eagerly tuned in to see if England could chase down 354 to level the series and immediately ran into the full force of Swann’s hideousness.

Richie Benaud once offered eight points by way of advice for someone wanting to know how to commentate on cricket. Swann either missed it completely or took it as a guide to what not to do.

Remember the value of a pause, advised Benaud. No chance. Swann prattles on at a tempo more commonly associated with a Venezuelan football commentator, and silence is viewed as an opportunity to cram in even more vapidity.

The former England spinner needs to understand the difference between Twenty20 cricket and Tests, as the wonderful and much-missed Sky team do so adroitly. Test matches take their time, like a day’s fishing on a picturesque riverbank.

Even when the tension is unusually high, as it was when England were trying to chase that big fourth-innings target, not a huge amount happens, so there is no need to keep nattering away as if two flyweights are going toe-to-toe on the other side of the ropes.

Benaud also reminded everyone there are no teams in the world called ‘we’ or ‘they’. Again, Swann was having none of this, his unashamed cheerleading act being so constant and intense he may as well have been wearing a St George costume from the official Barmy Army catalogue.

One particular nadir came when he argued with Adam Gilchrist that 354 was not actually that big a target even though it had only been achieved nine times before in the 140-year history of Test cricket.

“I don’t give a monkey’s about history,” insisted the buffoon. “Teams are never positive enough batting fourth.”

So there you go, all you great captains down the decades, you weren’t positive enough. So simple.

Swann, who also praised James Vince for a “well-made 15”, is thankfully part of a BT team that is so big he usually gets whipped out of the attack after around six overs, but it is still to be hoped that, as with the last Ashes tour, he decides to come home when the score is 3-0.

Defensive doubts may lead to epic derby 

On Sunday punters have an extremely rare opportunity to back Manchester City at odds-against in a league match. Indeed it might be the last such chance this season unless they suddenly stop playing such scintillating football or have the title wrapped up so early they start chucking the kids on for the last few games.

But are they value at around 6-5 for their trip to Old Trafford to meet a Manchester United side who will close the gap at the top to five points if they win?

Pep Guardiola’s aces have needed a late winner to record a 2-1 success in each of their last three league games, which does not suggest they are huge value on Sunday, but what makes this match so fascinating is the issue of how Jose Mourinho will approach it.

Most people will presume the United manager will do his usual ploy of prioritising the denial of scoring opportunities to the opposition, or parking the bus as it is known these days, but I’m not so sure.

Yes, he usually prefers not conceding to scoring when facing another big-six club, but there have been occasions during his time at Chelsea when Mourinho has surprised everyone and gone for it.

It is not out of the question that he will do so again on Sunday, on the basis that his defence is simply not good enough to contain the rampant Citizens and that City’s own rearguard is the weakest part of their side.

If that is the case we could be in for an epic contest that has the potential to keep the title race alive if the hosts land odds of 5-2.

Sadly games to savour rather than bet on are an almost alien concept these days, and it could be argued that smartphones and tablets mean games to actually watch are rare enough.

But this is one game I intend to be glued to from start to finish without the need for a wager, although if pushed I might stick a fiver on 2-2.

Brilliant insight makes Harvey a worthy winner

It was excellent to see Luke Harvey land the Broadcaster of the Year award at the HWPA bash on Monday, something that would surely have been a three-figure price around 18 months ago.

From a shortlist devoid of Nick Luck and Matt Chapman - something that would also have been a three-figure price around 18 months ago - Harvey, to rapturous cheers, saw off ITV colleagues Ed Chamberlin and Oli Bell and RUK’s Lydia Hislop.

Just two days earlier, Harvey, who combines fine knowledge with the cheery demeanour of a little cartoon turtle, had shown why he was a deserving winner and also why ITV have done so well in their debut year.

Harvey was stationed down at the start for the Ladbrokes Trophy when it became clear that Present Man needed some attention after one of his shoes had come off.

Harvey was straight on the case, scurrying up to the scene and narrating the work of the farrier as he went about reshoeing the gelding.

It was fascinating to see the process close up and also a delight to hear Harvey’s chat with Present Man’s jockey Bryony Frost, who stayed completely unflappable despite the delay and despite admitting “the others are going to go mad when I trot up to them”.

It was great television, brilliant insight for the viewers and another example of why Harvey was a worthy winner of the Broadcaster of the Year title.

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On Tuesday night Radio 5 Live deployed Ally McCoist in the role of co-commentator and within a minute it was clear he is a natural
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