“You find out life's this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game - life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when you add up all those inches, that's gonna make the f****** difference between winning and losing!”
In Oliver Stone’s American football movie, Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino’s character, Coach Tony D’Amato, importunately delivers a speech containing the above quotation to his charges before a do-or-die game. It has been a long time since I saw the movie, but I remember his team went on (naturally) to achieve a dramatic win.
At its most elite, most competitive level, sport is largely about incremental gains. Teams strive to make and accumulate small advances. Total domination of one party over the other is the exception rather than the norm. Baseball players steal bases, bunt, fight for each run. In football, teams encroach on opposition territory one pass at a time; games sometimes end scoreless or tied and winning by a single goal is commonplace. Boxers, for the most part, earn points, jab by jab, punch by punch, and not many separate the combatants at the end of the most enthralling bouts.
It’s the same with cricket. The big-hitting innings or the incisive spell of bowling can dramatically alter and ultimately win a game, but the best contests are won and lost by very small margins. Teams win the war by winning the individual battles: the sharp single completed; the difficult catch poached; the boundary saved; the run-out effected, could mean the difference between triumph and defeat. The dive that reduces a certain boundary to two runs might well be forgotten by the end of the game, but how important was that effort if victory is achieved by one or two runs.
In any case, the best teams are the ones that pay attention not only to the big things but to the small things as well. It was mainly the skill of their pace bowling that led to the West Indies’ domination of cricket in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. But, they also caught everything within reach, fielded like hounds, and never gifted their opponents an inch.
The same could be said of the all-conquering Australian teams under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. In addition to having more than their fair share of the finest players, they had great work ethic and always played with tireless intensity. The lowliest opponent was set upon as keenly as the toughest.
Sean Williams was 94 and batting brilliantly; Zimbabwe was 300/6 chasing 331 against Ireland in Hobart during the 30th match of Cricket World Cup 2015 when he swung a delivery from Kevin O’Brien high over midwicket. In making the overhead catch, John Mooney landed perilously close to the ropes. Some are convinced he had touched it, but Williams was given out and in the end, Zimbabwe fell five runs short. An inch farther and it would have been six, and Williams would have made a hundred and Zimbabwe would likely have won. Victory and defeat were an inch apart.
I never bought into the idea of South Africa being regular chokers. I just didn’t see how a side staffed, over the years, by players as highly regarded as Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, Allan Donald, Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, among others, could fall into the habit of capitulating under strong scrutiny. These men built their careers on their capacity to resist and overcome pressure. How else would they have ascended to the heights they had reached?
Yet, how does one explain their mounting number of losses in high-pressure games that they rightly should have won? Their semi-final World Cup loss to New Zealand, for example was replete with missed opportunities, a number of which, had they been taken, could easily have reversed the result.
Perhaps they are sometimes guilty of paying too much attention to the outcome and too little to the process, such as when Herschelle Gibbs “dropped the World Cup” in attempting to celebrate a catch he had failed to complete, or even the run-outs in this last game that went awry by what I saw described as “over-eager hands.”
But perhaps this explanation is too simplistic and we are simply searching for answers where no real answers exist. Perhaps the accusation of the South Africans being chokers is the best we can come up with, like fans of the Boston Red Sox blaming their teams failure to win the World Series for more than 80 years on “The Curse of the Bambino,” brought on by the owner’s decision in 1920 to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.
After outclassing India in the second semi-final, Australia walloped New Zealand in the finals. The games were far from being the heart-stopping kind that leaves players and fans emotionally drained at the end. The Australians were clearly the best team throughout the World Cup; they have been the game’s best team for a while now. This they have become, not only because they have a number of very good players, but also because they have been willing, as Al Pacino exhorted, to battle hard for every inch.