Monday, 28 February 2011

Comeback Kings

Sometimes we just need reminding. Most people who know and love sport do so because of the sheer dramatic unpredictability, the fact that nothing is ever certain. And yet we forget. Enough time elapses since the last miracle that we start to lose our faith. Sport is life in microcosm, and both sport and life seem to serve up inspirational examples to kindle the flame of hope when it is in danger of being extinguished.

The last few weeks have provided a couple of stunning reminders that in sport the apparently impossible rarely is. Earlier this month, Newcastle scored four times in 19 minutes to overcome a seemingly unassailable 4-0 deficit against Arsenal, the greatest comeback in Premiership history. And then yesterday England tied with India in the Cricket World Cup, despite being set a target of 338, finishing one run short of the third highest run chase in history.

These events bring back memories of an incredible eighteenth months in the middle of the last decade when on three separate occasions I felt like I was witnessing sporting history, epic comebacks, the likes of which I had never seen before and haven’t since. The first was the 2004 American League Championship Series, where the Boston Red Sox were an inning away from a 4-0 whitewash to their hated rivals the New York Yankees before recovering to win the series 4-3. In the process, they became the only side in Major League Baseball history to overturn a three game deficit. The second (of course) is the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’: the 2005 Champions’ League Final, where the fifth best team in England triumphed over AC Milan despite being 3-0 behind at half-time. Finally, the following March South Africa saw Australia score more runs than any cricket team had ever done before, and then went four better, in officially the greatest one-day international ever.

All of these occasions were incredibly tense and suspenseful, swinging one way then the other. In each of them, the identity of the victor was in doubt until the very end. Arsenal could have scored a winner in the dying minutes; the Yankees took game 5 to extra innings; the Champions’ League final went to penalties and both cricket matches involved nail biting final overs where all three results were possible. Yet such sporting drama is hardly uncommon: this season will have seen hundreds of last minute goals, and Twenty20 cricket matches almost inevitably end unpredictable last overs.

In a discussion of Twenty20 cricket, David Mitchell (of all people) hit upon the key point, the reason that Arsenal-Newcastle and India-England are so significant, and will live on in the memory beyond most of the other sporting action this year:

Sport is, in essence, the earliest and best form of reality TV (obviously it predates TV - before that, it was just "reality stuff you watch"). It's compelling because it's really happening and no one knows what the outcome will be, and whether it will be exciting and satisfying, a dull anti-climax, or maddeningly unjust

So when sport is thrilling, it's much more so than a Bourne film or an episode of 24, purely because it might have been boring; you've made the investment of time, you've taken the risk, so when the outcome is worth seeing, you're reaping the emotional reward. And there is simply less of that investment involved in Twenty20 than in Test cricket so it can't be as exciting - end of story. It may be a percentage choice for something relatively entertaining but it'll never hit the heights of the climax of an Ashes series because there haven't been five five-day matches over which the campaign has been waged - and that's without counting the hundred years of rivalry, and the literal years of total time spent actually playing over that period, which raise the stakes even more

The best sporting drama is the best sporting drama because it could so easily have been otherwise. Going behind 4-0 to Arsenal means that you will almost certainly lose, as does conceding 338 runs against India. The fact that many spectators left St. James’ Park after half an hour demonstrates this fact, and the implausibility of Newcastle’s recovery.

Equally significant is the likelihood that none of those fans will leave a football game early again. For the mere realisation that these things are possible means that every other game is imbued with the potential for shock and awe. It doesn’t matter how many goals/runs/points your team concedes, how dismally they play: anything is possible. This realisation shelters and protects hope against any number of unpleasant realities. And should hope’s defences weaken, the chances are that another improbable escape will occur to bolster them.

Yet for all their improbability, the events of the last month do not come close to eclipsing the big occasions of 2004-06. While they exemplified drama and scarcity, both lack a third crucial element of truly momentous sporting landmark: a climactic place in a broader narrative. That’s why each of the three events has a dedicated Wikipedia page with a whole section devoted to their background contexts. The Red Sox’ victory was as broad a narrative as they come, prefaced by 86 years of Bostonian failure. The more immediate context was the hurt endured by the Red Sox at the hands of the Yankees a year earlier, succumbing to a last-gasp defeat at the same stage. Liverpool’s Champions’ League story began with the damning departure of Michael Owen, a clear signal that the club’s hopes of major success were too slim to hold on to (then) one of the world’s best strikers. And yet, within nine months, one of the worst teams in the club’s history had claimed the biggest prize in club football. South Africa’s victory was an exorcism too, as the perennial ‘chokers’ overcame the burden of their 1999 World Cup semi-final defeat to beat the world champions.

By contrast, India and England’s match formed part of a group stage explicitly designed to ensure both will progress, and so is of little significance in greater scheme of the tournament. Similarly, Arsenal were likely to finish second before the Newcastle game, and are likely to finish second after it. Even if the two dropped points do eventually cost them the title, there is so much left of the season that the link is unlikely to be widely made. So while the two ties gave caused much excitement, and been a powerful reminder of the wonder of sport, they are unlikely to join the canon of truly great sporting occasions.

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