Oh those lazy, hazy, Stokesy days of summer: how long ago they seem now. When England won the cricket World Cup — or scraped it anyway — in July, and pulled off the unlikeliest of Ashes Test wins on that blazing Leeds day in August, Ben Stokes loomed as a greater certainty to be the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year than Vladimir Putin to win a Russian election.
Don’t think we can be so sure now — about Stokesy, that is. He’s odds-on favourite from the shortlist of six contenders for the award announced by the BBC this week, but it is his misfortune that by the time this silly old competition comes round each year, the cricketing heroics of the summer have gathered so much dust they have pretty much disappeared from view.
Instead the more immediate cricketing story is usually England doing badly in a Test match south of the equator: in this instance, at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand, where they suffered a thumping defeat at the hands of a Kiwi team whose industrious and pragmatic approach to Test cricket contrasted glaringly with the playboy recklessness of some of the touring players. England threw away their wickets as if they were engaged in a game of beach cricket — surely a consequence of their one-day successes. New Zealand, by contrast, showed a Stakhanovite commitment to the rigours of the five-day game. England’s two innings lasted just shy of 16 hours in total while B.J. Watling, the Kiwi keeper, batted for more than 11 hours in his one innings, let alone performing countless squats behind the stumps when his side were in the field.
Given that cricket hasn’t produced a Sports Personality winner (call it Spoty if you must, but is there a more hideous acronym in all the universe?) since Andrew Flintoff in 2005, I fear Stokesy may have to be content with being a legend in his own summertime. If that is the case, I would like to think the award will go to the dazzling Dina Asher-Smith, also on the shortlist and a member of another neglected group: women. Zara Phillips was the last female to win, in 2006.
Among the other contenders, if it’s sheer personality you’re looking for, then the achievements of Raheem Sterling, under Pep Guardiola’s excellent guidance, in focusing on racism in football have been spectacular. I’d quite like Alun Wyn Jones to score — he’ll certainly pick up the vote in Bonymaen in the Swansea valleys. By most measures, though, you would have to crown Lewis Hamilton. He’s a mixed-race council-house boy from Stevenage who now dominates the most plutocratic sport in the world as a six-times champion. What more can a man do? It’s just that even the most exciting F1 race can sometimes feel as tedious as Homes Under The Hammer on a permanent loop. (No offence Dion.) But let’s see: Stokes should win but Dina will give him a run.
Talking of Putin, isn’t it about time we learned of Russian electoral interference in Spoty? Given how wide open the system is, any good foreign agent could get in there and swing it, just for the division and discontent it would stir up. Maybe they have been doing it for years, which explains why Ryan Giggs got it that time.
Tense days for some highly regarded but under-performing managers in the Premier League now that Mauricio Pochettino has been booted back on to the jobs market. So a word of advice to Everton’s Marco Silva, Arsenal’s Unai Emery and Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham: if your chairman starts buying in some cases of expensive Argentinian Malbec, or humming the hits of Evita, you might just want to check that the severance clause in your contract is watertight. Because one of those awkward meetings in the Premier Inn conference room at Leicester Forest East services could well be on the horizon.