Brian Viner: Ryder Cup is stellar exception in year lurching from sublime to ridiculous

There should be an award for the most disappointing team of the year
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For those of us unfortunate enough to be on the Ladbrokes e-mailing list, the latest odds on who is to be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year in Birmingham tomorrow evening have been relentlessly updated these past few weeks. The flurry of betting information has at times blocked my inbox, which is almost as painful as it sounds.

The illusion that it is a sporting contest of the keenest importance is one that Ladbrokes, no less than the BBC, likes to encourage. The company's spokesman, Nick Weinberg, even suggested on Wednesday that, following England's calamitous defeat in the second Ashes Test, there had been a run of money on Monty Panesar from fans eager to put pressure on Duncan Fletcher to pick the spinner for the next Test match in Perth.

The idea that Fletcher might be influenced by what happens at the NEC tomorrow night is, of course, laughable, but then Fletcher's decision to overlook Panesar in Adelaide was laughable too. It's already been a laughable week for English cricket, so you never know.

Besides, the increased betting on Panesar is fact, not fiction, and his odds have duly tumbled from 33-1 to 20-1. According to the latest e-mail I received from Ladbrokes on the subject, two minutes ago, Darren Clarke remains the hot favourite, at 1-5, while Zara Phillips has slipped to 9-2 from 100-30. A little further out in the betting are Joe Calzaghe (11-2), Nicole Cook (25-1), Andrew Murray (33-1), Beth Tweddle (33-1), Phil Taylor (50-1), Jenson Button (66-1) and Ricky Hatton (100-1). But by the time you've read the next paragraph, that might all have changed.

David Walliams, the admirable comedian who swam the Channel for charity, did not, alas, make the short list. For a while he was favourite to win the thing - a non-sportsman in a non-sporting endeavour - which was as eloquent a statement as any on what a dismal year this has been for British, and in particular, English, sport.

If Clarke wins, as he seems bound to do, there are some who will consider that statement reinforced. It's not as if he's won a major championship in 2006; he was just one component of a convincing European Ryder Cup win. And, as he is the first to acknowledge, he wouldn't be in the running at all if his wife, Heather, was still alive. For the first time in the 52-year history of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the outcome seems likely to be decided by a sympathy vote, albeit one mixed with a great deal of admiration.

Clarke has gone on record as saying that if he does win this accolade, he would much rather that it marked some outstanding sporting achievement, which in golf really means a major. But so confused are our definitions of the word "personality" in a world in which the paparazzi trail Jade Goody around, that it is worth considering what this award really means. More often than not, it acknowledges the year's transcendent sporting episode or even moment. That's why Jim Laker won it in 1956, and why Mary Peters won it in 1972, Ian Botham in 1981, Michael Owen in 1998, and Jonny Wilkinson in 2003. But sometimes those moments are secured less by breadth of skill than by depth of character. And that's why I believe that Clarke should not feel the award, if it does come his way, is diminished by the tragic circumstances. Because I can think of hardly any occasion in this or any other year when a man's character so shaped a sporting moment as it did that September morning on the first tee at the K-Club, when, with tears in his eyes following his tumultuous reception, the big Ulsterman nailed a massive, bullet-straight opening drive that he could have been forgiven for hoiking almost anywhere. It's maybe not altogether fanciful to suggest that the Ryder Cup was won there and then, just as the Ashes were lost when Steve Harmison bowled his first ball into Freddie Flintoff's hands in Brisbane.

All of which brings me to tomorrow's team trophy. There surely can't be much doubt that it will go to Ian Woosnam and gang, which is why I think they should institute a new award: the most disappointing team of the year. That would be a truly exciting contest, with England's cricketers making a late charge in a thrilling bid to overhaul England's footballers and rugby union players, and Duncan Fletcher reminding Sven Goran Eriksson and Andy Robinson that it's not the two-horse race they supposed. Twelve months ago, incidentally, there was widespread consternation that Fletcher had been overlooked as coach of the year; Jose Mourinho got the nod instead. And Michael Vaughan and his Ashes winners were undisputed team of the year.

So even though the bookies and the BBC try to whip up more frenzied interest in tomorrow night's ceremony than the occasion really deserves, as a measure of how far there is to fall from the highest pedestals, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show is genuinely unrivalled.

Who I Like This Week...

It has to be Shane Warne, for his remarkable performance in the second Test in Adelaide. There comes a point, whenever an England team is being outclassed, whether by Brazilian footballers, New Zealand rugby players or Australian cricketers, at which disappointment and frustration subside, and sheer admiration kicks in. So it was with Warne the other night. I sometimes envy those who were around to watch Don Bradman in his heyday, and I'm sure that future generations will be similarly envious that they weren't around in the age of the equally extraordinary Shane Warne. I once got him to sign a cricket ball, intending to auction it for charity. But I can't quite bring myself to get rid.

And Who I Don't

It has to be Duncan Fletcher, whom I admire for the terrific job he has done with England's cricketers, and there is no doubt in my mind that he - not Michael Vaughan - masterminded the Ashes victory last summer. I liked him, too, when I interviewed him. Beneath the taciturn exterior there's a taciturn interior, but he's a decent and impressive man. However, the rout in Brisbane screamed for a selection change for Adelaide, notably the introduction of Monty Panesar, and while I'm loath to load on Panesar the kind of expectations Wayne Rooney endured at the World Cup, I do think he might have made the difference between a draw and a devastating defeat. Pride kept him out (whether Fletcher's or Flintoff's), and it came before England's fall.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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