Brian Viner: At open Birkdale omens blow hot for 'Grande Slam'
Saturday 12 July 2008
Thursday was one of the best days English cricket has enjoyed for some time; indeed, I can't recall Lord's hosting a more auspicious opening day of a Test series against another major cricketing power. Against Australia in 2005 it looked good for a while, as Ricky Ponting's team were dismissed for only 190, but by close of play England had been reduced to 91 for 7 and Glenn McGrath looked ominously as though he was going to retain the Ashes on his own.
At close of play on Thursday, England were 309 for 3, with Kevin Pietersen looking rampant on 104 not out and Ian Bell ably playing the Athos to his D'Artagnan. It was, moreover, the most significant of centuries by Pietersen, in his first Test match against the country he left as an 18-year-old (these are effectively "Pietersen's Ashes," as someone neatly put it on Sky Sports), its team skippered by his bête noire, Graeme Smith. His partnership with Bell also steered England away from the batting collapse that looked likely after three wickets had fallen in 13 balls.
It was, in other words, the newsiest of days at Lord's and, watching the BBC's News at Ten that evening, having missed much of the action, I looked forward to the report. But there wasn't one. There was a report about Aaron Cook, the 17-year-old representing Britain in taekwondo at the Olympic Games, but about the cricket not a squeak or a whisper. On the BBC's main evening news bulletin. Which says something alarming either about the BBC, or about cricket, or both. Besides, after all the stuff about dramatically rising road taxation, and British soldiers beating to death an Iraqi hotel receptionist, and the deaths of six young people in a head-on collision, we needed an uplifting story, although admittedly there was the hilarious latest on Max Mosley's bleeding bottom.
Whatever, is it because Test match pictures belong to Sky these days, and Channel Five has the terrestrial highlights, that BBC News pretends cricket does not exist? And if so, is it born of pique, or the arrogant belief that a sport no longer covered by the BBC is simply not worthy of coverage? I didn't notice Wimbledon slipping off the corporation's news radar, and I don't suppose next week's Open Championship at Royal Birkdale will, either. But a news agenda dictated by successful bidding for sporting rights is a news agenda not worth the back of the cigarette packet it's scribbled on.
There, I'm glad I've got that off my chest. Now, what about the Open Championship? I know that Mr Hey over there to my right is our betting expert, but I like the look, and the price, of the 10-1 favourite Sergio Garcia. Before the coming of Tiger Woods, favourites to win golf's major championships were usually generously priced, and it's rather pleasing to be spirited back to those distant days, albeit by Tiger's unfortunate indisposition.
Why Sergio? Well, rather like the Grand National, which unfolds a few miles down the road from Birkdale, the Open always yields a good story. And what a story it would be if Garcia, defeated in a play-off last year at Carnoustie, could complete a remarkable "Grande Slam" for Spain, following such stirring victories for his compatriots at Euro 2008 and on Centre Court. Not to mention that he seems to have hit a bit of timely form.
With Sergio, though, it all depends on whether his putter is blowing hot or cold, and when it blows cold, it's enough to make penguins freeze. Also, has he, like his pal Rafael Nadal, got the temperament to prevail on the biggest of stages? Except in the Ryder Cup, where he has team-mates to cuddle him, he hasn't shown it yet.
The portents, though, are firmly in place. This is already Spain's sporting summer, and also Birkdale is the place where another of Garcia's countrymen blazed on to the scene 32 years ago. His utterly unpronounceable name was Severiano Ballesteros, he was 19, and on the last hole of the final round he hit one of the most audacious chip shots any of us in the crowd had ever witnessed, bumping it between two bunkers to within four feet of the hole. Nervelessly, he then banged in the putt to finish tied for second, behind Johnny Miller, with the great Jack Nicklaus. Amid the Birkdale dunes, a star was born.
Garcia is a star already, of course, but still lacking the aura of a major champion. Birkdale would be a good place to acquire that, and he would be guaranteed a decent show on the News at Ten, which is more than can be said of England's cricketers, whatever they might achieve, in the second Test at Headingley, on the same day.
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