There are many who cannot understand the obsession that I, and millions of others, have with the world of sport. To them it is simply and stupid, pointless form of entertainment, barely worthy of that last word. There’s so much these people miss and I feel it’s only fair to try to show them. With this aim, this is the first of a short series of posts explaining what the magic is, why sport has such a strong hold on the thoughts and imagination:
On many levels, sport delivers an ever evolving storyline, complex and unpredictable. Take the famous 2005 champions league final between Liverpool and Milan: Liverpool, rocked by Paolo Maldini’s first minute goal, were completely outclassed and outthought throughout the first half and went into the break 3-0 down. It would have been 4 but for a marginal offside decision which denied Hernan Crespo. To all watching around the world, the contest was over and only the lack of better options stopped me from giving the second half a miss.
The rest of the story is well-known across the globe and will never be forgotten by any who saw it. Whether it was Rafa Benitez’s partially enforced tactical changes or the sheer will and drive of card-carrying Scouse talisman Steven Gerrard that brought it about could be argued for eternity but somehow Liverpool exploded back into the game, pulling 2 goals back before being awarded a penalty on the hour. Up stepped Xabi Alonso, looking confident, but his shot was saved- cue despair among millions backing the Reds. This was shortly followed by equal joy as Alonso smashed home the rebound. The scores remained at 3-3 for the rest of the game, including the extra-time period thanks to a combination of Jamie Carragher’s undying commitment to the cause and Jerzy Dudek’s impossible double save to deny Andriy Shevchenko- the second a pure reflex right arm thrust out to stop a shot from absolute point-blank range. The Ukranian couldn’t believe what he had seen, Dudek himself was probably pretty surprised too.
So, possibly the ultimate in sporting drama was upon us- the notorious penalty shoot-out, despised by many for its unsatisfactory, luck-heavy nature, and yet none can deny its morbidly fascinating qualities. Just as it is beyond almost all of us not to scour the scene of an accident for a glimpse of the damage caused to body or property, so we are in the thrall of the events on the 11-metre stage formed of goal, penalty spot, ball, penalty taker and goalkeeper. Reputations as heroes and villains are forged in a mere split second’s work. Some are crushed by the pressure, some rise to new heights, the rare characters like Stuart Pearce even return to find redemption.
This time, it was Dudek’s time to become a hero, dancing across his line to distract the Milan players and ultimately make a villain of that man Shevchenko as Milan’s final penalty was stuck off target. The celebrations that followed were a world away from the desperation that had reigned less than 2 hours earlier. Surely the most unbelievable, most extreme of circumstances sport could throw our way…
Of course, sport does nothing better than defy our expectations- the more we take something for granted, the more we are surprised. We had to wait only a few weeks for even the Liverpool story to be exceeded.
The scene this time was Edgbaston, the occasion- known since as simply ‘The Greatest Test’- was the second Ashes Test between England and Australia, those oldest of cricketing foes. From the prologue of England’s inescapable nemesis Glenn McGrath being wheeled away injured during the warm-up, through England’s dashing first innings in which they racked up over 400 runs in the first day’s play, the story became ever more captivating. The stage was set for the final scenes by Steve Harmison’s slower ball in a million to oust Michael Clarke to bring the Saturday to a close. Australia were 8 down and had only Brett Lee and Shane Warne at the crease. Between the two of them, and Michael Kasprowicz to follow, 102 runs were required. England were seemingly in a position of immense comfort, 2 good deliveries from victory.
The next day did not go according to plan, Lee and Warne scoring relatively freely until Warne was forced onto his own stumps by a shorter ball. Kasprowicz’s arrival had no great effect, the runs required continued to fall. Australia gradually inched closer and closer to their target and England were getting desperate- they were literally witnessing years of work being wasted before their very own eyes. All the success enjoyed under Duncan Fletcher and his captains Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, all the hype coming in to the series were for nought. England had already enjoyed their ritual assassination at McGrath’s hands at Lord’s and a defeat here would leave the Ashes almost beyond their reach yet again.
Not this time. In came that man Harmison, with a ball that reared up towards Kasprowicz’s throat, which the batsman could only fend away with his glove. Those years were now all on the line in this brief fraction of a second, a blink of an eye. The ball could go to one of two places: Geraint Jones’s left glove or away towards fine leg- the match, the series, England’s self-belief and respect depended on the diving Jones. Much-maligned throughout the series, as well as previous and subsequent series during his international career, Jones held on to the most important catch of his life and victory was snatched back by England. Watching the footage now, four and a half years on, even knowing exactly what will happen, still brings a tear to the eye and just the thought of that moment makes the hair stand on end time and again.
That joy is now retrospectively tempered by the demise of a fine team, hit by injuries and retirements. If not for Simon Jones’ ankle injury keeping him from the final test of the series, England would have played the same XI throughout for the first time in many a year. Sadly, the stomach-churning victory at Trent Bridge in the fourth test turned out to be the last time this England team took to the pitch together. Simon Jones has never managed to get both his form and fitness back sufficiently and simultaneously, Vaughan had long spells out with his dodgy knee and Marcus Trescothick’s well-documented battle with depression forced him out of the international arena within months of this celebration. Vagaries of form claimed other, Harmison and Geraint Jones principally, and even the current captain Andrew Strauss was almost lost into the wilderness after a terrible run in 2008.
The curtain was brought crashing down on this golden period with the 5-0 whitewash in Australia in the winter of 2006/7 and the inevitable departure of coach Fletcher, and now only Strauss and Kevin Pietersen survive in the test side, with Harmison ever on the fringes. The eleven men involved in the Edgbaston test are almost all gone, but the memory will never fade.
Vaughan, Trescothick, Strauss, Pietersen, Bell, Flintoff, G. Jones, Giles, Hoggard, Harmison, S. Jones we salute you all.