The most famous sporting phrase

IF you want to know what is wrong with cricket in England — an important question as a new season begins — you need to see a jokey, blokey sort of television show which is on BBC or one of the satellite channels weekly.


David Gower... being scorned unmercifully.-Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN

IF you want to know what is wrong with cricket in England — an important question as a new season begins — you need to see a jokey, blokey sort of television show which is on BBC or one of the satellite channels weekly.

It's called They Think It's All Over and it is shown late at night so that its ribald laugh lines don't upset the younger generation who are assumed to be fast asleep when the watershed for such programmes kicks in at 9.30 p.m.

This comedy-quiz show stars three professional comedians, the suave footballer Gary Lineker and David Gower, the greatest left-handed batsman this country has produced, captain in more than 30 Tests and, especially in his younger days, a superb fielder.

You might remember the elegance of Gower, never better demonstrated than when, late in his career, he hit the cover drive that made him — briefly — the highest scoring England batsman.

Of course, he also played what the critics used to call "loose" shots which sometimes resulted in his dismissal at moments when England needed him to score many more runs. He still contrived to make an average of around 70 runs every time he played in a Test and, as I have pointed out to more than one naive young reporter, if he had scored all the runs he might have done there would be no room for Don Bradman in the pages of Wisden.

None of this concerns the gigglers who dominate They Think It's All Over.

They scorn Gower unmercifully, suggesting that he was more famous for the foolishness of his dismissals than his Test centuries and that but for the feebleness of his batting England might have had a record worth remembering. They laugh at his captaincy, his defeats and his overall record.

Gower, still the gentleman, smiles gently, giggles in all the right places and, no doubt, laughs all the way to the bank.

But a generation in danger of forgetting his greatness, will soon see Gower as a batsman who turned talent into ducks, a captain who let chances escape him and the reason for the long-running saga of Ashes defeats.

It's ten years now since this man — now one of the group of ex-players of the Ian Botham era who spend their time commentating on the game — retired as it became clear that the selectors no longer wanted his sublime skills. Many of those millions watching don't recall just how beautifully he batted.

Fair enough for this essentially comic programme to play everything for laughs; but it does demonstrate, after a decade of wretched results, just how low cricket is now in the public estimation.

Gower helps the jokes along by playing the dumb blond. Rarely speaking — I once timed him at 20 minutes in a half hour programme before he did anything except smile charmingly — and concentrating on being polite, shaking hands with the mystery guests and occasionally answering the questions correctly.

Not that any one of those taking part has a chance to saying anything intelligent in the face of a barrage of smutty remarks. That is the nature of the beast; but as an advertisement for cricket it is a disaster.

Outside the programme the game is too often portrayed as being playing by flanneled fools, administered by idiots and watched by the less educationally sub-normal. Sadly, there is too much truth in this description for us to be complacent.

But for the results in Tests against Australia, England would be much more highly rated of course. Instead, as the fight for the Ashes is so highly valued here, the long line of defeats stretching back to 1989 means that cricket is seen as a failure. Early dismissal in the World Cup in this winter of disaster has served to underline that feeling.

Several events this year alone have shown how little respect is left for English cricket. David Morgan, the new chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has been forced to travel to Zimbabwe to explain why our cricketers declined to play in their country and to ensure that their players toured England in the early part of the new season.

England, threatened by a fine for the decision not to go to Zimbabwe, need money as much as Zimbabwe and I doubt if the threat to cancel the tour was ever more than a political ploy. But if Morgan had been a trifle slower on his feet a cancellation might have thrown cricket in this country into an even worse turmoil.

While he was in Zimbabwe he ought to have asked Henry Olonga if he fancied a post with the England and Wales Cricket Board. Olonga, and his team mate Andy Flower, won universal praise for their stand against the Mugabe government during the World Cup. While Flower has jobs at Essex and with South Australia, Olonga is at a loose end although his ability to sing and his bright personality will not leave him in the dole queue for long.

Stories that he will face trial if he returns to Zimbabwe may be slightly exaggerated. After all, Flower was not clapped in irons during his brief stay. Olonga has proved his courage and England could use such men of steadfast values: perhaps as a player, but certainly in one role or another.

Meanwhile, ECB money is being squandered on legal fees to fight unwinnable cases like the plea to ICC to back England's failure to go to Zimbabwe and now an appeal against the withholding of part of their tournament profit.

No wonder several counties are complaining about the amount spent on these battles and attempting to lay the blame at the feet of the players' union, the Professional Cricketers Association and in particular on their spokesman Richard Bevan who drove the decision not to visit Zimbabwe.

There is no doubt the game begins this summer in turmoil. On the playing side Nasser Hussain has resigned as one day captain and left no obvious successor, while Andrew Caddick has decided to concentrate on Tests in future, also leaving no one to bowl with the new ball or send down the final overs.

That is just one problem the England selectors have to solve but at the second remove there is also the lack of young players pushing forward. Yes, there is James Anderson, 21, and his Lancashire team mate Kyle Hogg, 19; but where are the rest? There is certainly no young England player with the sublime talent of the Australian Michael Clark.

Remember Clark? He has played in one one-day international, made the winning runs and was promptly sent back to New South Wales to continue his apprenticeship. Not wanted — yet; but certainly not forgotten. England's answer to Michael Clark may be playing second team cricket; more likely he does not exist.

Within ten years he will be one of the greatest batsmen of his era. Just as Gower was 15 years ago.

By the way, "They Think It's All Over'' is now the most famous sporting phrase in this country. It had its roots at the end of the 1966 soccer World Cup when England defeated Germany 4-2 at Wembley and won the Cup for the only time in their history.

The crowd began to run on to the pitch as extra time drew to a close and Geoff Hurst hit his third goal. "The crowd are coming on to the pitch,'' screamed the television commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme. ``They think it's all over'' — and as Hurst hit the ball into the net — ``It is now!''

I read recently that every time those words are said on television Wolstenholme — who died a year ago — was paid a repeat fee so that he was a millionaire. If he had received a fee each time a newspaper used that headline he might have been a billionaire!

No doubt some of those who take part in this programme will have large bank balances when they retire. Good luck to them. But I worry what state English cricket will be in by that time and how much their jokes will have contributed to its demise.