5 April 2007

To the loser, the spoils

Isn’t it funny how sometimes in sport all the plaudits can go to a member of the losing team?

And rightly so.

In a winning effort, most players’ performances will be looked on more positively than they might otherwise have been, thanks to the halo effect of victory. But for an individual effort in a losing cause to lodge itself in the memory, it needs to be truly outstanding.

We’ve seen two such performances at the cricket World Cup in this past week, both in games involving Sri Lanka.

A week ago, South Africa were cruising to victory against the Sri Lankans, reaching the point where they needed just five runs off 30 balls with five wickets to spare – a mere formality in any normal circumstance.

Lasith Malinga, however, is not a normal bowler. In many ways, he is Sri Lanka’s Shane Warne. With crazy blond highlights in his hair and earrings everywhere, he will always attract attention. But it his low, almost side-arm release – which has earned him the notorious nickname ‘Malinga the Slinger’ – and his ability to bowl viciously swinging yorkers at speeds beyond 90mph which most unnerves opposing batsmen.

And so it was against South Africa. In the space of four balls, Malinga turned the match on its head, dismissing Shaun Pollock, Andrew Hall, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini. Never before in international cricket had a bowler taken wickets with four consecutive balls. It may never happen again.

The only thing missing from the fairy-tale was the happy ending. Defying a cauldron of expectation, South Africa’s last wicket pairing of Peterson and Langeveldt managed to scramble the necessary five runs, leaving Malinga with a unique but ultimately futile achievement.

The boot was on the other foot last night, however.

Having reduced England from a solid 101/2 to a desperate 133/6, Sri Lanka were themselves cruising to an apparently facile win as England’s seventh wicket pair of wicket-keeper Paul Nixon and all-rounder Ravi Bopara faced the prospect of a daunting 103-run chase on what had already proven to be a tricky pitch.

And, as the overs ticked down and the run-rate ticked inexorably up from a run a ball to nearly ten an over – 59 runs required off the last six overs – it was increasingly obvious that, while Bopara and Nixon were doing an admirable job prolonging the innings and avoiding a total rout, that it was too much to expect a miracle from two batsmen with a combined total of just 20 appearances and 234 runs in ODIs.

Experience, after all, is everything in these pressure-cooker situations, as the experts are so fond of saying.

Fortunately, no one had told Nixon and Bopara. With a combination of a wise old head (the 36-yeard-old Nixon) and youthful but calm optimism (the 21-year-old Bopara), they unleashed an assault which was probably as shocking to the Sri Lankans as it was to me.

The single highlight was undoubtedly Nixon’s remarkable reverse sweep of Muttiah Muralitharan for six, but there was no hiding the fact that Bopara was the star of the show. Mixing the orthodox with the ugly-but-effective, he accumulated 52 runs off as many balls and steered England – despite the late loss of Nixon – to the brink of an unthinkable victory.

Sadly, as with Malinga a week earlier, Bopara couldn’t deliver the final knockout blow. His 53rd ball – the last of the innings with England needing three to win – saw Dilhara Fernando flatten his stumps. England had fallen three runs short.

But there was no question who the man of the match was. It wasn’t a five-for, and it wasn’t a swashbuckling century, but it was a performance of great maturity and effectiveness from an inexperienced 21-year-old which will linger in the memory of this England fan long after the tournament has finished.

Winning is the biggest thing, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing. Or even the best thing.

And rightly so.