When human endeavour beat human imagination

Every emotion, quality and nuance of sport came alive on Sunday. Were there really only two winners?
What are tie­-breaker rules but stipulations never meant to be activated? Rather than a way to select the winner, they are, in reality, an admission of the inability to pick one.(Photos: AFP)
What are tie­-breaker rules but stipulations never meant to be activated? Rather than a way to select the winner, they are, in reality, an admission of the inability to pick one.(Photos: AFP)
Updated on Jul 15, 2019 08:59 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByKunal Pradhan

Invisible, magical sparks flew out of tennis racquet strings and cricket bat handles, enveloping London, and through the power of broadcast, briefly shrouding the entire world in a force field of sporting excellence. That may indeed be the simplest explanation for what happened on the Super-est of all Sundays, when two events, only 10 miles apart at the Meccas of cricket and tennis, came together to demonstrate every nuance, quality and emotion associated with watching and playing sport.

Over the course of a few extraordinary hours, which ended in moments of pure Mary Poppins-induced magic, a Wimbledon final was won for the first time in a tie-break from 12-12 in the final set; and World Cup winners were crowned on the number of boundaries hit after the match and the Super Over were tied. It was as if some divine plot was unfolding before our eyes.

And that’s where things get really interesting, because sport — unlike cinema, music, literature and art — follows no script.

It is a strange being, this Sport. Stripped to the basics, it could be defined simply as the human manifestation of the principle of action-reaction. Bowler runs in to bowl, determined to knock stumps over — action. Batsman marks his spot and tries to hoick said bowler over extra-cover — reaction. Fielder runs across the boundary to cut off shot; batsman scampers down the crease and dives to prevent being run out.

Over time, as players get better, margins begin narrowing. Bowler acquires the ability to hurl 10 kinds of deliveries; batsman the skill to play 10 different strokes to each delivery; fields can be set in 100 different ways to account for each stroke. Conjure with all these permutations, and you arrive at an animal whose next move is impossible to predict. You can weigh it down with the burdens of history, nationalism or individualism, and yet it remains liberated by the autonomy of free will.

The magnificence of the two displays on Sunday night lies not just in how unpredictable they were, but in how desperately the exponents of sport tried to tame the beast while willing it to run wild; in how arduously watchers of sport wanted their chosen one to triumph while grudgingly admiring the other.

Was it their desperation for a first World Cup title that fuelled England and New Zealand to split hairs for a tie, and then split the split hair in the tie-breaker? So what was it that willed a 37-year-old Roger Federer, with eight Wimbledon and 20 Grand Slam titles, and a 32-year-old Novak Djokovic, the world number one with 15 Grand Slams of his own, to not give in over nearly five gruelling hours?

Any attempt to examine sport as a pursuit of victory is bound to throw up such a dichotomy. For, after rising above a certain level, sport transforms into the pursuit of perfection, strangely devoid of the outcome. When two perfectionists, or groups of perfectionists, are locked in the kind of battles they were on Sunday night, the result is no longer the most important thing.

This pursuit for perfection resonates across fields. The Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky was asked what his greatest moment was: when he completed a symphony, when he heard it played the first time by an orchestra, or when it was heralded as one of the great works of all time? No, no, no, he replied. It was when he was sitting at the piano, trying to look for the right note, and finally, after three or four hours, he found it. “That’s the moment,” he said. “There is nothing like it.”

Of course, the history books will remember the 2019 Wimbledon as a victory for Novak Djokovic and the 2019 cricket World Cup as the first time England lifted the trophy. But were there really only two winners on Sunday night?

For, what are tie-breaker rules — one was introduced for the first time at this year’s Wimbledon and the other for the first time at this World Cup — but stipulations that are never meant to be activated? One of the two protagonists is expected to give in long before these rules kick in. Rather than a way to select the winner, they are in reality an admission of the inability to pick one.

What happened in London on July 14, 2019, should be emblazoned in our memory as a rare moment in sporting history when human endeavour surpassed the rules that are meant to measure human achievement. Not once, but almost simultaneously in two different settings. Either that, or Mary Poppins, umbrella in hand, was hovering over the London sky, casting spells on two arenas 10 miles apart.


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Saturday, November 27, 2021