Sports watching can be one of the most engrossing pastimes, particularly in these days of live television and rebroadcasts of singular events, and while the overwhelming victory has its moments – sometimes the mathematics of what has taken place in a blowout are staggering – the highlight for me is almost always the finely balanced contest that turns on a miraculous play or a last-minute singular effort that turns into a heart-stopping victory – for our guys, of course. Those razor-thin moments, sooner or later occurring in almost every sport we know, are the ones that linger in your mind for the sheer drama and surprise they convey. We live for those. We call up friends about them.
Yes, the massive wins are impressive, the sheer number of the runs – “How they got so much, man? We weren’t playing so bad, what madness was that?” You almost want to call for the score sheet, to make sure there was no mistake, but you know better; you know you were counting every run, every ball left to bowl, you were holding onto the edge with your finger-tips, you remember the fourth-down pass that fell short, the cross court forehand in the tiebreaker that fell an inch wide.
Sure, you’re jumping up and down and carrying on like a lunatic when your team blows out the other one, big smile on your face and high fives, but it’s the ones where the battle is even, and your edge is razor thin – they’re the ones that hold you by your throat, that stay in your memory forever. From those mano a mano encounters, you walk out the stadium celebrating the victory but knowing it was tight; that boundary in the penultimate over; that kick serve surging past the stretched out racquet to seal the tie-breaker; that Messi flick with the outside of the wrong foot that somehow found the net; those aside it could have gone the other way, so you walk out feeling good but knowing it was there for the other guys, back and forth, those are the ones that take sport to some other level. At the end of those closing miracles, in contrast to the bedlam in the stands, the cameras often show us losing players sitting unmoving off to one side, mouth open, staring, as if they can’t believe what just happened. “You mean, we lost that? One wayward over, and the man hit the winning run on the last ball? The last ball, man?” Other players come by to offer an encouraging word or an encouraging pat on the back, but the player still sits there, almost gutted by the sudden turnaround, as if waiting for some whistle to blow indicating the go-ahead goal was offside, or the last-second shot didn’t beat the buzzer and there’s a minute left to play.
I sat in Sabina with my friend Colin Cholmondeley and saw one of those heart stoppers, when West Indies were playing Australia in a one-day, when Mervin Dillon made two mistakes fielding on the boundary and cost us runs, and we ended up indeed needing a four on the final ball and we made it. I can’t recall the batsman, but the memory of the explosion in Sabina as the ball cleared the boundary is like yesterday; Jamaicans I never saw before or since were hugging me up. It was organized insanity
On another occasion, I was at Bourda at a one-day between England and West Indies (obviously pre-Providence) where our boys had lost four early wickets cheaply with Gayle gone for 2 and Sarwan for 4 (the match had been rained out the day previous), and Shiv stood up in there, square-on stance and all, and scored (I’m going from memory here) I believe 70 runs and we pulled off this impossible victory. For a million dollars I couldn’t tell you what year it was, but Vaughan, Strauss and Flintoff were on the English team; Kieron Powell and Dwayne Bravo on ours. People were jumping and hugging each other in the stands as if we had just reversed that India loss in the World Cup. I had my camera that day, and I have an enlarged print of a shot I took in the early going of Shiv playing a delicate chop to one that was a bit wide. The bowler is not in the shot, and I don’t recall his name, but I remember Shiv playing that stroke, and with everybody else as if nailed to the ground. The scoreboard says 81 for 4 (the fight back was under way) and in the picture Shiv is leaning forward with his weight on his front foot, cutting the ball through the slips. The keeper is standing up, arms extended, frozen. Only his head has moved, to the left, watching the ball going by the only other player in the shot – an Englishman, number 20 on his shirt – not even raising his arms as the white orb flew by.
We often hear the expression in the after-chat about this disappointing match or that, “It was just a game”. Sorry, not in those matches, not in those razor-thin wins; in those you know it’s more than just a game; it’s an elevation, the human spirit surging, where truly everybody won; that’s how thin the edge was. That’s the grip on you. Those are the ones you play over in your mind, and gaff about when old friends meet. Keep your overwhelming wins for the record books; give me the razor-thin win every time.