Having something to lose can turn sportsmen into quivering wrecks, especially in the absence of experience-fuelled icy cold self assurance. It is when there is nothing to lose that the mind lets go, the swing of the bat or the release of the ball becomes pure snarling instinct. This is often when we see the best from people. When a victory becomes such a ridiculous notion that you swing freely. Free from the expectation of the crowd who now think you’re finished. Deep into the abyss of defeat and not yet sunk. Think the 300 Spartans against a multitude of Persians, Henry V against the French at Agincourt and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeating Roger Federer from two sets down, on a real tennis court no less and not one he dreamed up at nap time. It happens when the competitors embody the dangerous cocktail of talent and diminished hope. They simply turn the corner of the OK Corral like Wyatt Earp and face their enemies all guns blazing, staring death in the face head on, one pull of the trigger at a time. Every so often fate lends a hand and the impossible succeeds. Hence the cliche of fortune favouring the brave.
At Trent Bridge Brad Haddin’s push for a seemingly impossible victory with a strategically aggressive score of 71 was gladiatorial until his cruel undoing. When Haddin and Australia’s number 11 James Pattinson came together with 80 runs needed to beat England a rational man wouldn’t have bet a thing on Michael Clarke’s company of pushovers coming close. That being said, a sane person could never rationalise the psychological inability of Australians (particularly of Haddin’s breed) to simply accept defeat. Haddin is old school. Bricks and mortar. Hard as steel. A ruthless competitor. He was included in the Ashes squad for that exact role. An older statesman of experience encompassing a fierce and unbridled ability to insert himself up the noses of the English and stay there. Even all the nostril gold mining Graeme Swann does at first slip couldn’t remove him. Australia lost in the end, but, in keeping with their history (see Rob Smyth’s piece on close Australian defeats here: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/652731.html) they lost a match by a very tight margin which they had no right to even come close to.
Reverse the situation at Durham however and though the outcome was the same for Australia, the margin of defeat was strikingly higher. Australia were in the ascendency. You could only dream of a situation when you need 131 runs to win with eight wickets in hand, and all the time in the world to score them. However from that very same position Australia showed plenty of quiver to totally collapse on Sunday at Durham’s Chester-le-street. They choked. Michael Vaughan’s tweet said as much. By all reason they should have finally secured their first victory over England on this tour. Credit where credit is due though to the English for holding their nerve and backing the right man. After a Broadsiding from a blonde Draco Malfoy doppelgänger called Stuart, Australia surrendered the high ground and let the potential for a 2-2 series draw sink into the mire. England won the series 3-0.
Though Cook’s fields were questionable, a fact laboured in the Telegraph by an obviously embittered Shane Warne, he showed something that his Australian counterpart Clarke lacks for all of his aggression, innovation and dynamism. Cook showed the icy calm of a man who has the freedom to back his team, because they have tasted multiple Ashes test and series victories. They have the reserve strength and self-confidence that resides in a successful history. This is why England surrendered 65 runs of their 80 run margin to take the tenth Aussie wicket at Trent Bridge and still got over the line. Most of Clarke’s team have never played in a winning team against England. So when the going got tough, Cook’s tough got going and Clarke’s men had their fragility exposed by the confidence of Stuart Broad’s dark wizardry.
Like a lot of British sportsman the best seems to come out of them when they teeter on the edge of defeat. Andy Murray seems to enjoy torturing the home crowds at Wimbledon by going two sets down to an unworthy opponent and coming back to a heroic victory. As I write this Scotland have just gone 1-0 up against England at Wembley. I have no doubt England will harness their superiority eventually and go on to win. They could of course just play ruthlessly from ball one but where’s the fun in that? The heroism that stirs when staging a come back does make good headlines. There in lies a clue. Either there is a conspiracy between all English sportsmen and the editors of the national papers or their needs are larger than just appearing on the right side of the scorecard as the winning side. It is the hero factor of making it nearly impossible for yourself that seems to count the most.
The match at Durham probably would have been closer if Australia had lost three early wickets and were forced to rely on sheer belligerence to see them through. As it was they had their foot on England’s throat and somehow choked themselves into defeat. A deadly combination of ‘knowing they should win from here’ syndrome and also having no memory of ever defeating England ultimately decided the final score. They will have to fire on all cylinders for the five full days at the Oval in the fifth and final test to have any hope of winning. No one expects them to win a game this series. The odds say they won’t. The press don’t think they will. The scoreline says they won’t. The English no doubt believe Australia won’t win. Add all of this up and they have the ultimate springboard from which sheer autopilot should take over and they could swing free, with belligerence and candour in the face of the overwhelming odds. They must embrace the hero potential and find their inner mongrel ahead of the next series which already seems to be on the doorstep. Otherwise England will squelch the life out of them with a fourth victory.