Ben Stokes is the overwhelming favourite to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award next month – so likely in fact that the ECB will allow him to miss a warm-up match in South Africa to attend the ceremony.
A trip through the record books reveals that only four times previously has the award been taken by a cricketer: Jim Laker, David Steele, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff. Stokes looks almost certain to become the fifth.
It’s a strange award, SPOTY. The element that confuses everyone and indeed always has done for as long as I can remember, is the ‘personality’ bit. What does it mean? Are we voting on the sports person’s personality or their achievements, or both? Nobody has ever really come to a definitive conclusion, but given Michael Owen won it in 1998, a man whose lack of personality is so huge that the void where it should be has its own gravitational pull, you’d think it must be their sporting efforts which attract the votes. But when it comes to cricketers I’m not sure that is always the case. They tend to embody something of the era, or something of the nation’s sense of itself.
It’s easy to see why Laker won in 1956. He’d taken 19 wickets in a single Test against Australia that summer (a feat still not equalled and unlikely ever to be) and was a rather charming chap who was later to be a stalwart of the commentary box. At the time it was impossible to be a media personality really, as there was so little media. Only 36% of the public even had a TV in 1956, the majority preferring to do such old fashioned things as talking, reading a book or going for a long walk.
But things had changed by 1975 when David Steele picked up the award. The bespectacled 33-year-old grey-haired Northants batsman was drafted in to face the Lillee and Thomson wrecking crew in 1975’s second Test, following a humiliating defeat by an innings and 85 runs.
In the remaining Tests, Steele scored 50, 45, 73, 92, 39 and 66. Solid respectable numbers but nothing exceptional per se. However, he put a bit of backbone into the team at a time of great need and did much to help prevent any further losses that summer. By the end of 1976, his Test career was done, having played just eight games. But it was the ‘bank clerk that went to war’ tag that got him the SPOTY title. At the time he seemed to be the antidote to the uncouth Aussie brutes who were tearing our team apart. In fact, it was his modest success that seemed to be attractive to many and not his relatively modest achievements with the bat.
He embodied the emotionally repressed quiet decency and resolute Empire spirit that English nostalgists have always assigned to the nation’s character, perhaps to try and wash away the sin of imperialism and aggrandise the country which had recently spent 200 years plundering its way around the world, beating people into submission and robbing away its natural resources and labour, often in the name of ‘civilising’ the natives.
So Steele, despite having no distinctive personality apart from ordinariness, won Sports Personality of the Year 1975 for just being a good sort.
However, the third cricketer to win was Ian Botham in 1981, the year of his own Headingley Test, of course. Another if different sort of stereotype, Botham was the sort of alpha-maleness-made-flesh that many of us have tried to avoid all our lives, fearing practical jokes involving dog poo and buckets of water. A Boys Own Hero straight out of the comic books, if Steele was the quiet morally upright bank clerk who went to war, Botham was the maverick who wrestled a Nazi out of a tank with knife between his teeth with Yorkshire indignation and grit in his fists. Somehow he was emblematic of the contemporary, if largely mythological, Thatcherite ‘self-made man’, pulling himself up by his bootstraps and with only the aid of an appalling haircut, laying waste to Johnny Foreigner. He beat Steve Davis and Seb Coe, so he wasn’t up against a lot of personality opposition, in fairness. Botham was a wonderful cricketer, but he won that year as much for who he was as a person as what he did on that damp day in Leeds.
And of course Flintoff won it in 2005. The modern inheritor of the Botham swashbuckling tradition and heavy duty drinking gene, but with the added twist of 21st century vulnerability, essential for popularity nowadays. A working class giant of a man, but one who looked like he could cry, appealed to many. His performances in the Ashes series had a physicality and explosive emotional content that helps sustain his post-cricket career even now.
And so we come to Ben Stokes. His feats at the wicket this summer speak for themselves. As to his character, well, giving someone an absolute leathering outside of a night club would have disqualified you in days gone by. In 1981 there were actually plenty who thought Botham’s win was beyond the pale. Here was a bloody oik who may or may not have smoked dope with the Rolling Stones, after all. Worse still, he could drink like an Australian.
However, at a time in the country’s history when the public stage is dominated by mendacious idiots and lying amoral gobshites, we need a hero and Stokes is it. His summer was almost a trial by fire, his visible physical exhaustion as he thrashed away at the opposition was transformative and cleansing; a kind of sportswashing of his public persona live on television. And that makes him the absolutely perfect Sports Personality of the Year in 2019.
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