James Lawton: If Strauss is not top of the order, it proves BBC award has lost its way
Six months before the Ashes England were rudderless and then humiliated in Jamaica
Tuesday 08 December 2009
Here's a challenging proposition for the British sports public that a growing consensus believes, insultingly or legitimately, take your pick, is quite beyond its powers. Why not vote in as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year someone who not only won the most important contest of the year but also displayed all those qualities we like to think are peculiarly our own when at our very best?
For a start, consider supreme phlegm under grievous pressure created by the possibility that you will ultimately be betrayed both from above and below. Then throw in the nerve to produce one of the greatest performances of your career while laying hands on the Ashes under the glowering gaze of Ricky Ponting, arguably the most fiercely motivated first-rank competitor in all of sport.
This, it seems here, must put Andrew Strauss so clear of the rest of the field that we should be awaiting only his formal installation when the corporation produce their annual tribute to what is supposed to be the nation's supreme achievement in sport.
But then take a look at the odds. Strauss is at 16-l, alongside David Haye, who we are told produced a defensive boxing masterclass when separating the immobile human tower Nikolai Valuev from the WBA world heavyweight title. This, admittedly, was an astonishing feat considering that Valuev seemed utterly powerless to attack, the normal requirement for a defensive anything never mind masterclass.
However it's also true that the world is not going to fall off its axis should Haye win the vote – or if it goes to either Jenson Button (10-11 favourite), who did happen to enjoy the benefit of the fastest car around by some considerable distance while amassing the bulk of the points which went towards his world drivers' championship, or the splendid Jessica Ennis (4-1), who won the world heptathlon title.
She produced a great and brave performance but unless some of us were not paying attention, it did not exactly occupy the epicentre of the nation's emotion.
Ryan Giggs is considered an infinitely stronger contender than Strauss at 5-2 and there is no question that he is a candidate of great merit, his evergreen, biting performances reminding us of all the quality that he has brought to a career which has seen him outstrip in character and consistency all of his Old Trafford contemporaries except the equally phenomenal Paul Scholes, the best English midfielder of his generation.
Yet Strauss's position in the odds table remains both an oddity and a scandal. Above anything else, it suggests a profound failure in the sports public to muster even the rudiments of proper analysis; a sweeping assessment perhaps but then what other conclusion survives even the barest examination of quite what Strauss achieved in the wake of the embarrassing denouement of Kevin Pietersen's ill-starred captaincy.
One of Strauss's predecessors, Michael Atherton, a tough-minded competitor by any standards, neatly sums up a feat which stretches back not just through the summer but into those winter months when his greatest challenge seemed not so much the winning back of the Ashes, but the avoidance of embarrassment that at times threatened to be little short of excruciating.
Atherton says: "Six months before the Ashes, England were rudderless, without a captain or a coach; five months before the Ashes they were humiliated at Sabina Park in Jamaica. Strauss remained unflappable."
The fact is Strauss should have received the captaincy when Michael Vaughan went down rather than the ultimate voters' hero – and BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner Freddie Flintoff – and then had to suffer the additional indignity of seeing the job go to the equally unsuitable Pietersen.
Given these circumstances, Strauss might well have said, "Thanks, but no thanks", when he was given the job of leading the chaotically organised team to the Caribbean and the jaws of an instant and potentially disembowelling defeat. Instead he made a glorious triumph of an extremely bad job.
His attitude to Ponting and the Aussies was less than reverential but by and large pitched perfectly between the feisty and the sound appraisal that though some of the richest cream of the opposition had been skimmed off, it still possessed both formidable talent and fighting instincts. And was thus hardly a candidate for the kind of provocation once produced by another England cricket captain, Tony Greig, when he happily but catastrophically predicted that the ferocious West Indians were about to spend a summer grovelling in defeat.
All in all Strauss produced a masterpiece of intelligent leadership that was immensely strengthened by a match-winning performance with the bat in the psychologically huge second Test at Lord's. In the fourth, Strauss's team were cut to pieces at Headingley and if he had some responsibility for that as he battled with the problem of Flintoff's show-stopping belief that he should play whatever the state of his fitness, he could also fairly claim considerable authorship of the magnificent fightback at The Oval.
What part personality, as opposed to major success, comes into the current equation remains as much a mystery as ever. It's true that Strauss doesn't ooze the stuff in a camera- or headline-friendly way. But what he does provide, more or less continuously, is the sense of a highly intelligent and combative leader with a now triumphant record of making the best of the most difficult circumstances.
It is a combination which made quite a slice of the nation feel, however briefly, supremely good about itself for those few days at The Oval which, you might have thought, were if not ultimately unforgettable, would at least have lingered in the mind until the voting for Personality of the Year was in.
Perhaps it no longer works like that, if it ever did. Maybe the latest sensation is now the one that counts. There is another question, of course.
Does any of this really matter in that Strauss knows what he did, along with anyone who has a rough idea of the competitive forces and historic pressure with which he had to deal? Probably not – unless you worry that the British are about to announce themselves pretty much an illiterate sports nation.
Heard the one about Blatter's handball joke and the tumbleweed?
Whatever you thought of some of the grislier hype accompanying the World Cup draw in Cape Town, and the extraordinary deification of David Beckham after what seemed like a pretty much routine stroll down super-celebrity lane, there can not be much doubt about the single most disgusting moment.
It was when the Fifa president Sepp Blatter made one of those jokes that confirm that whatever great qualities the Swiss nation possess, an outstandingly subtle sense of humour is perhaps not one of them.
There he was preening in front of the world's cameras in the company of a Fifa-approved football when the gag flicked into his agile mind. He raised his hands and, with a grin that could only be described as ghastly, he said that he must not touch the ball.
If anyone was able to produce the ghost of a smile he was almost certainly French rather than Irish. For the rest of us, we could only groan at the fact that Fifa palpably still does not get it.
It does not see that what happened after Thierry Henry so obviously handled the ball in the Stade de France was a sickening affront to the sporting instinct – and all the more so for the lack of someone who cares most about the game, rather than the noble challenge of raking in every cent it can generate, sitting down and reaching the only acceptable response.
It is, we will continue to say at all opportunities, especially those spoon-fed to us so nauseatingly by Blatter and his cronies, to fast-track the ready-made solution of TV technology.
When will we see a title fight that lives up to the billing?
Promoter Frank Warren struck a rare note of realism in the middle of the tidal wave of hype which followed David Haye's victory over the almost indescribably unchallenging Nikolai Valuev.
He made the valuable point that the Russian was arguably the worst heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. Such analysis however did not surface in the wake of his own fighter Amir Khan's instant demolition of Dmitriy Salita.
What Warren might have said on this occasion was that the American was a strong contender for the title of most hapless number one contender even in the scabrous history of official boxing rankings. Instead, Warren declared, "He [Khan] can be better than Naseem Hamed."
Let us hope fervently he is right. Naseem, who was also one of Warren's fighters, was undressed and sent home the first time he fought in Marco Antonio Barrera, a fighter of class, who also happened to be still in his prime.
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