Thursday, January 18, 2018

Big match expectations

There aren’t too many Keith Miller-type personalities around, so the pressure of the big sporting occasion more often than not spoils the event as a memorable spectacle.

It was the celebrated British television personality Michael Parkinson who once questioned the flamboyant Australian cricket all-rounder of the 1940’s and 1950’s about coping with the pressures of the international game, to which Miller—who flew hundreds of missions for the Royal Air Force during World War II—gave the now legendary response: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing cricket is not.”

Try telling that to Mahela Jayawardene or Kumar Sangakkara though. In what was a T20 International farewell for both outstanding servants of Sri Lankan cricket, Jayawardene looked as if his world was collapsing around him after he fell to Ravi Ashwin in pursuit of a modest target of 131 against India in the World T20 final in Bangladesh yesterday, while Sangakkara’s reaction on reaching a match-winning half-century and shortly after ending his country’s run of defeats in four global finals suggested that this was much more than a simple matter of bat and ball for a piece of silverware.

At least that was a genuine final. At almost exactly the same time that the winning runs were being struck in Mirpur, Steven Gerrard was scoring from the penalty spot for the second time in the game to give Liverpool a 2-1 lead that they held on to against West Ham at Upton Park to take his side back to the top of the standings in English football’s Premier League.

In a game where the overwhelming favourites laboured to see off the challenge of a team 34 points and ten places adrift of them, the England midfielder’s reaction to hitting the back of the net betrayed a captain and a team feeling the strain and struggling to cope with the increasing weight of expectation on the verge of being crowned champions of England for the first time in 24 years.

There are still five games to go in the season, including two at home to Manchester City and Chelsea which in all probability will determine the destiny of the title once and for all, but Gerrard’s goal celebration was in the manner of a man who had actually clinched the elusive prize or, to take it to another level, had just put England ahead over Brazil in the World Cup final at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on July 13.

To tell you the truth, as much as I would wish for Liverpool to reclaim a title that has eluded them since 1990, the nerves and shakiness of their ninth consecutive league win don’t bode well for the homestretch. But then again, Jayawardene’s dismissal at 65 for three in the tenth over, followed by the demise of Lahiru Thirimanne 13 runs and three overs later looked like the start of a Sri Lankan collapse, much like what we saw to our delight in pursuit of a similar sort of target in the 2012 final against the West Indies in Colombo.

Ask any Caribbean cricket fan about that match and they will describe it as a memorable moment. But was it a memorable game beyond the passion and intensity of national and regional fervour? When it comes to a final, at whatever level in whichever sport, it is extremely rare for the game to live up to the occasion. There is simply too much at stake. Daring and adventure gives way to care and caution as the previously free-flowing protagonists contemplate the consequences of a mistake—an errant pass intercepted by an alert striker or a miscued heave that finds the long-on fielder instead of clearing the boundary rope—that could become the turning point in such a decisive, high-profile contest.

What are the chances of tonight’s championship game in American college (meaning university) basketball between Kentucky and Connecticut living up to its billing? On Saturday, a record crowd of 79,444 (imagine that, for a basketball double-header!) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas saw Kentucky edge Wisconsin 74-73 thanks to a three-pointer from Aaron Harrison in the dying seconds of the game after Connecticut had rallied from a halftime deficit to eliminate the previously unbeaten Florida in the first semi-final.

Yes, there will be another crowd touching the 80,000-mark. Yes, there will be all the hoopla and razzmatazz that we have grown accustomed to in any showpiece occasion in American sport. But what about the game itself? How easy is it to leave the nerves on the bench and unfurl all the skills, drills and frills as if it were just another game?

There are a handful of contemporary superstars who seem to revel in such moments. Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive for the past six years, is clearly one of them. Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have finished on the losing side yesterday, but neither his leadership nor his performance behind or in front of the stumps ever seems to suffer on the big day.

Hundreds of millions in India would have been questioning his decision to persist with Amit Mishra after the leg-spinner conceded 14 runs in the 15th over. However the evidence of his captaincy—World T20, World Cup and Champions Trophy titles along with taking India to number one in the Test rankings in 2011—indicates that he has been successful more often than not.

Defeat is not the end of the world, even if some choose to react like it is.