On November 6, when the subcontinent awoke to a lazy Sunday morning, Netherlands were three-fourths into a first-rate upset win over South Africa in the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup. The Proteas, after a fine victory over India, had given the vibes of a title-contender only to lose the must-win game and crash out of the tournament.
The seismic result was contextualised in two ways. The first was by harping on South Africa’s propensity to lose crunch matches at big tournaments, and the second was by chronicling how the Dutchmen had ensured that India would top the group and cleared the path for Pakistan to sneak in, with a potential dream final against India looming (a possibility that was negated after England’s stunning triumph over India on November 10).
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These are not freak acts
Missing from the whole discussion was Netherlands’ clear on-field superiority. It was a seminal moment in the nation’s cricketing history, a win that eventually helped the European country finish fourth in Group 2, above Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, thereby ensuring automatic qualification for the 2024 edition. But it was still seen as a freak act, more South Africa’s loss than Netherlands’ win.
This lack of recognition has often been less-heralded teams’ bane. Their inclusion is first resisted — one of cricket’s premier tournaments is called Champions Trophy, where only the top-eight teams in the world can play. Then, when included, they are seen just to be making up the numbers, mostly enablers in a larger cause. The fact that they do everything to improve despite limited finance and average facilities is never considered. They are feel-good stories, at best.
But one of sport’s traits is to make people realise, from time to time, that there is abundant ‘invisible’ excellence. At the 1983 World Cup (60 overs), Zimbabwe defeated Australia, and in 1999 the African country made it out of the group stages at the expense of Sri Lanka and England and even recorded a momentous victory over India. While Kenya made the semifinals in 2003, Ireland defeated Pakistan in 2007, and four years later beat England in Bengaluru as Kevin O’Brien’s blistering 63-ball 113 helped the Irish chase down a mammoth 327.
At the ongoing T20 World Cup, Ireland has beaten West Indies and England; Zimbabwe has outsmarted Pakistan, and Afghanistan has come within five runs of defeating Australia. In fact, across the 2021 and 2022 editions of the T20 World Cup, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh have had to play the qualifying rounds to enter the main tournament, while Afghanistan, not even a full International Cricket Council member until 2017, gained direct entry.
Amid made-for-TV sports spectacles
Perhaps one reason for the undesirability of the ‘minnows’ is how modern-day sports is packaged and sold. There is a very thin — often invisible — line that separates sports from entertainment, and prime-time television slots and mega-money broadcasting deals are indicative of the same. It now caters increasingly to an audience that wants its in-stadia or home-theatre experience to be an enthralling spectacle, a hopeful escape from the day-to-day struggles. A ‘minnow’ getting flogged by a much superior team doesn’t quite fit that bill.
This is probably why a gang of 12 big European football clubs sought to create a closed-door competition in 2021, seeing themselves as entertainers more than sportsmen. This might also be why the football World Cup, set to begin in Qatar on November 20, is often criticised as bloated, and that the 32-team group stage – set to expand to 48 in 2026 – is a marathon snooze fest.
But the beauty of live sport is that it isn’t captive and doesn’t conform. It often plays out in a messy, imperfect world, and that’s what makes it exciting and dramatic. Senegal beating the then defending champion France in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup, South Korea dumping Italy out of the same tournament held in South Korea and Japan, and Indian club Aizawl FC becoming the 2016-17 I-League champion ahead of powerhouse clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC are vivid examples.
In tennis, it is for this very reason that the 2021 U.S. Open felt so fresh, with Daniil Medvedev beating Novak Djokovic to deny the Serb a record-breaking 21st Major and men’s tennis’ first Grand Slam – winning all four Majors in a single year – since 1969, and the teenaged duo of Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez contesting the women’s final. The sport felt young again last week when 19-year-old Holger Rune beat five top-10 players, including Djokovic in the final, to secure his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Paris.
In the present era of cut-throat professional sport, success is often defined by an inhuman standard. Any career that doesn’t end up building a legacy is not looked at favourably. But sport is more than just about the awe-inspiring feats that end up creating icons. It is also about the aspirations and dreams of the young, the fledglings and the underdogs.
The so-called minnows’ worth is not justified only if they win but also by their enthusiastic participation. It’s imperative that we allow them time and space, and provide them with enough competitive opportunities to grow. This is all the more essential in a sport like cricket if it is to become truly global.
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A decade ago, writing in The Guardian, columnist Andy Bull expressed his helplessness in trying to explain Pakistani off-spinner Saeed Ajmal’s ‘ doosra’ – a delivery that travels in the opposite direction to a traditional off-break.
“I’ve long since given up trying to figure out how the conjurer did his trick with the watermelon,” he wrote. “After innumerable hours spent fruitlessly trawling chatrooms online I resigned myself to the fact that I was beaten, and told myself that life is richer if you leave room for a little magic here and there.” So will the game be with the magic of the ‘minnows’.