Brian Viner: New season dawns too soon and I'm not ready to swap my thigh pad for shin pads

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

This is always a tricky day for those of us who love football and cricket in equal measure.

As heart-tugging goes it's not exactly Sophie's Choice, but when the start of the Premier League coincides with the Saturday of a Test match, and in this case the pivotal match of what for England fans is proving to be an unusually satisfying series, it's hard to know whether to think slip cordons or midfield diamonds.

The world's two great 11-a-side games can happily coexist, of course. At Edgbaston on Wednesday the Sky Sports cameras alighted on Birmingham City's favourite son Trevor Francis, while chewing the fat in Sky's own commentary box were the vice-president of Accrington Stanley, David "Bumble" Lloyd, and the former Scunthorpe United centre-half, Ian "Beefy" Botham.

Moreover, the evening before, backstage during the interval of his entertaining show The World According To Bumble, playing for one night only at the British Legion in the Herefordshire town of Leominster, Lloyd reminded me that in the early 1990s he tried to sign two outstanding schoolboy cricketers for Lancashire, and that he missed out on the more talented of the two. That was Phil Neville, who opted to join Manchester United despite having broken the county's under-15 batting records established by John Crawley, who in turn had broken the young Michael Atherton's runs record. The other youngster, the one Bumble did manage to capture, was Andrew Flintoff.

Cricket and football have always enjoyed a closer relationship than, say, football and rugby union, or even rugby union and rugby league. To love football is not to loathe cricket, partly, I suppose, because one belongs to late spring and summer and the other more to autumn and winter. Some of our greatest sportsmen have thus been able to exchange shin pads for thigh pads, not that Brylcreem's poster boy Denis Compton had time for such namby-pampy accessories when he was strutting his stuff for Middlesex and Arsenal 60-odd years ago.

But there is nothing autumnal about 13 August, and I know I'm not the only football enthusiast who feels most summers that the Premier League season has dawned too soon. Still, at least in years without a World Cup or European Championship it doesn't feel as though it's never been away. Also, while I rarely give a fig for the Community Shield, which comes so early that the figs in my garden have yet even to ripen, last Sunday's clash of Manchester's old money and nouveau riche at least presented a more-than-usually interesting curtain-raiser.

On the other hand, there was a moment towards the end of the match when the next nine months suddenly seemed to weigh terribly heavily. It wasn't anything that happened on the pitch, but rather a remark from Martin Tyler behind the Sky microphone. I like Tyler, an old-school commentator who generally understands that the words are only there to enhance the pictures, but in the dying seconds after United's winning goal he came out with a line about Wembley having become a Nani state, and while I'm all for wordplay, and have even been known to indulge in it myself, I found myself wincing at the prospect of all those commentary-box puns yet to come, and all the past-it clowns who feature no less than the slick acrobats in the Premier League circus.

On the other hand, and I might be running out of hands here, it's surely not possible to be jaded by football before the middle of August, and dispiriting as it is that matches are already being postponed following the riots, for once it's violence that can't be construed as football's fault. Besides, things could be worse. I've just come back from Turkey, where the entire season has been postponed for a month while match-fixing allegations are resolved. I talked to a lot of football fans out there and they're not too unhappy, insisting that corruption must be exposed at whatever cost, and also that August is no time to play football in Turkey anyway. If only they had some cricket to follow, they would surely be even happier.

Many happy returns for Sampras

Pete Sampras turned 40 yesterday, and I like to think of the big Scooby-Doo tongue lolloping out of his mouth after he had blown out his candles. As for the old saying that life begins at 40, it was never less true. Sampras, we perhaps need to remind ourselves, won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, 13 of them before he was 30. They included seven Wimbledons (a post-1900 record), and he spent 286 weeks as world No 1 (another record ... Roger Federer having only managed a measly 285).

He is by any measure an all-time sporting great, and yet how warmly or even how well is he remembered as he enters his fifth decade? It is his misfortune, of course, to have bestridden the tennis stage like a colossus when an even greater colossus was already waiting in the wings, to say nothing of Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But I don't suppose he's hurting too much out there in his several acres of prime Californian real estate. Belated birthday greetings, Pete.

Caddie makes major mistake

How much classier it would have been on the part of Steve Williams, former caddie to Tiger Woods, if after helping Adam Scott to victory in last weekend's Bridgestone Invitational he had kept his mouth shut. His satisfaction would have been clear, but by bragging that the victory felt sweeter than any of "his" majors, he diminished himself and forgot one of the golden rules of sport, and life, that revenge is a dish best served cold.