Brian Viner on Saturday: 'I'll be tuning in as usual if only to see what Paula Radcliffe is wearing'

The sporting highlights will be hammered on the anvil of some producer's ego

Is it the onset of middle age that has so tempered the enthusiasm with which I used to look forward to the BBC's Sports Review of the Year, or is it the show itself, which true to its title used to be a simple but mouthwatering package of sporting highlights, followed by the coronation of that year's supreme achiever, but has become a glorified end-of-term sixth-form revue? Maybe that's why they've changed the title to Sports Personality of the Year, in depressing accordance with our 21st-century preoccupations.

Whatever, there are nights even now when I sit bolt upright in bed, drenched in sweat, having had terrifying flashbacks to The Matrix spoof a couple of years ago starring Hazel Irvine and a couple of bemused snooker players. I also seem to remember Leslie Grantham from EastEnders reviewing the golf season. Am I right or was that just a bad dream? Certainly The Matrix spoof was the nadir in a long history of ill-advised "comedy" sequences; the only thing that could be ventured in its favour was that Frank Bruno wasn't involved.

Still, I'll be tuning in as usual tomorrow night if only to see what Paula Radcliffe is wearing. Even though the sporting highlights will doubtless be hammered to death on the anvil of some producer's ego, so that the show becomes less a review of the sporting year and more a demonstration of the technical wizardry that can be achieved in a BBC editing suite, there will still be much that is reassuringly familiar, and the annual entrance of Radcliffe has taken over from the annual entrance of Red Rum as a moment to savour.

It is a moment, moreover, charged with intoxicating uncertainty. In the case of Red Rum the uncertainty concerned the steaming ordure that he just might dump at the feet of Frank Bough. In Radcliffe's case ... no, I'm not going to mention the London Marathon. In her case, it's more the uncertainty of how she got into her dress. Mind you, she has Dame Kelly Holmes to contend with now, and my guess is that there is no little rivalry between the two golden girls of British athletics in the evening-wear department.

As for the show's inability to present sporting highlights unadulterated by whizzy gadgetry, and its regrettable metamorphosis from a sports programme into a light-entertainment programme, I probably shouldn't be so reactionary. Times change and I suppose it's right that this annual hooley should change with them. Besides, it's not as if the BBC is the main provider of televised sport any more, so it's no wonder that with a large chunk of Sunday-evening prime time to fill, the production team should get overexcited.

Another reason for not getting too Meldrewish about the decline of a once-great institution is that its raison d'être, the crowning of the Sports Personality of the Year, has lost none of its lustre since Chris Chataway triumphed more than half a century ago. If anything, it has gained lustre.

In the past, the winners were more often than not gallant losers, people like Brendan Foster. Now, they are out-and-out winners.

Maybe that's more to do with the changing nature of Britain than anything else; we don't value gallant losing quite like we did. At any rate it seems significant that the 2005 recipient is almost certain to be a bleary-eyed Andrew Flintoff, bleary-eyed this time not because he's been on a massive all-night bender but because he's been woken from his kip in Pakistan.

Thirty years ago the winner was another cricketer, David Steele, also honoured for his heroics against Australia, except that they were not Ashes-winning heroics. Steele's bespectacled doughtiness against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson helped England to draw the series, but the Aussies kept the urn. This is no longer a nation that would lionise an Ashes cricketer who hadn't helped to deliver the Ashes.

Anyway, all of that brings me to Lord's, where Steele made his debut in the second Test in 1975, and was famously late in getting to the wicket having walked down a flight of steps too far and ended up in the gents. On Thursday night, I too ended up in the gents at Lord's. But at least it was deliberate, and indeed rather necessary, for I had spent the evening quaffing some splendid wine in the Long Room, at the balloon debate organised annually by the Lord's Taverners.

One feature of the balloon debate every year is a quiz, set by an estimable Taverner called Nick Stewart. On Thursday, Nick's questions were all about the Ashes and I thought you might like to grapple with a few of them, just to get you in the mood for tomorrow night's Team of the Year award. So, if W A Brown is 150, A L Thompson is 250, then who is 350? Name the three Englishmen who scored centuries in the first Test of the 1932/33 Bodyline series. In the Lord's Test of 1972, which Australian bowler took 16 wickets in the match? And finally, in which Ashes Test did the scorecard read Lillee c Willey b Dilley? And no peeking at reference books; we couldn't.

Who I Like This Week...

Sir Alex Ferguson, if only because nobody else seems to, and who managed to maintain a pretty dignified front for a man who most punters reckoned was watching his career imploding in Lisbon on Wednesday night. For my money (which is rather a lot less than his: this week's Football Rich List suggests that if he does soon retire, it will be with a nest egg of Fabergé proportions) Fergie deserves to be considered the greatest British club manager of all time, ahead of Bob Paisley, whose success was built on Bill Shankly's foundations, Shankly himself, Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Jock Stein, Herbert Chapman and Gordon Lee. So it's unseemly for people to dance on his professional grave, and, I suspect, ever so slightly premature.

And Who I Don't

The Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, who has seized the moral high ground in the extraordinary saga of Harry Redknapp's return to Portsmouth, but refuses to accept responsibility for the managerial merry-go-round at St Mary's. As for the expensive recruitment of Sir Clive Woodward, it will surely prove to be a colossal folie de grandeur, as Alain Perrin might say. Now there's a contender nobody seems to be mentioning for the manager's job at Southampton. Although, come to think of it, Reggie Perrin might be just the man on the basis that a chap with a background in food retailing and pig-farming might have some useful new ideas from which football could learn.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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