As sports fans, we are conditioned to expect the unexpected. While victory remains a possibility – however distant – and defeat is not yet final, we all nurture the tiny, flickering hope that a sporting miracle will occur. And though we all have an inner voice cautioning us “it ain’t going to happen” – every now and then it does.
Victory against all the odds has become a deep-rooted part of our sporting birthright – in some ways its very essence. Ben Stokes, with his fantasy innings in Leeds last Sunday is now firmly cemented onto his plinth in the English sporting Pantheon; and what he did was remarkable — but also entirely in keeping with our traditions.
Sport is the theatre of the improbable. Only a few months ago, Liverpool came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semi-final. Something that the pundits thought virtually impossible happened in front of our eyes.
Across sport the players lay before us one unlikely triumph after another; as spectators we gasp and applaud, shower the victors with laurels and sit back, waiting for the next marvel. We don’t know where, when or which sport will deliver – but we know it will happen some time. And it is this unpredictability which keeps us interested; the occasional triumph of the underdog gives savour to life.
Stokes’ glorious innings was so striking because it combined attributes which seem antithetical; he started, with England in a precarious position — and with evening coming on — conservatively, cautiously and responsibly, and finished, in the high heat of the following afternoon, with a magnificently swashbuckling onslaught. A perfect innings which had even grouchy old Boycott reaching for his thesaurus of superlatives: when the patron saint of Yorkshire pessimism is showering you with compliments, no further proof is needed that something truly remarkable has happened.
It was also a feat which conformed with English sporting history and, thereby, with our history more generally. Because sport – however much some soulless types condemn it as trivial – illuminates important aspects of the national character.
Show me the national team and I will tell you much about the country it represents. Take, for instance, Australia, our best-beloved enemies. In all three matches of this series so far, Australian virtues have been on display. What do we expect from the Aussies? We know they have a ‘winning mentality’ which means, in effect, that, above all, winning matters.
The Australian hero of the first match – that nonpareil of batsmen Steve Smith – was shamed by his complicity in the notorious ball-tampering episode in 2018 in a test match against South Africa. But that episode – disgraceful though it was – told us much about the Australian mentality: first that they can be single-minded and ruthless (even to the point of cheating) in pursuit of victory. But the heavy penalty meted out by Cricket Australia – Smith lost the captaincy, was banned for a year from the national side, and heavily fined – showed it upholding the high ideals of sportsmanship.
The sporting rivalry between Australia and England, which crosses all sports, but is especially pronounced in cricket and both rugby codes, is the living embodiment of the relationship between the two countries. And our view of them — as theirs of us — is hugely influenced by their sporting character.
We think of Australians as resolute, skilful, athletic and totally committed and also — and this is very important — as possessing the very same virtues that we cherish. We pay them the compliment of thinking that we have a shared view of how the game should be played. There is one big difference though: no Australian would ever want to be thought of as a ‘good loser’ whereas we hold on to that quaint notion. Even in defeat, Englishmen believe, something valuable can be salvaged through the stoic acceptance of sporting fate.
It isn’t just in the case of Australia that sport plays a major role in forming our views. How a national team performs comes to embody, in the popular imagination, the very essence of the country itself. Asked to think of Germany and the average Englishman is likely to have as one of that country’s defining characteristics ‘good at football’ and, by extension, a country which is a formidable opponent when united in common cause.
Or consider rugby and how the Six Nations tournament becomes an annual charivari of national virtues; Scotland, which seemingly every year reinforces the gallant loser stereotype; France displaying its customary national verve; Wales, offering its mercurial and elusive genius; Ireland with its unsurpassed patriotic fervour; Italy… but perhaps best not to draw any conclusions about Italy based on rugby for I don’t wish to be rude. But what the Six Nations adds up to is a portrait of six nations reduced to, but somehow highlighted by, a mere ball game.
These thumb-nail sketches embedded in the habitual spectator are not necessarily precise and accurate — they are impressionist and they are not infallible — but they are a way of rendering in human form the abstract notion of ‘the nation’. Individual Germans often defy the national stereotype by being neither humourless nor well-organised, and yet the image of the methodical team-player, disciplined and tough – which in large measure we impute from their performances on the football field – remains valid even if not the whole story. Which brings us back to the significance of Ben Stokes and that innings.
There is a recurrent theme in our history which might be termed the ‘….and then in the nick of time’ motif. So, in moments of maximum national peril, a hero arises, someone who defies the odds; a Churchill, or a Nelson who somehow delivers the nation from impending disaster.
These heroes do not have to be ‘perfect’ men; both Churchill and Nelson were flawed individuals — as is our man of the moment, ‘Stokesy’. Indeed we like our heroes to demonstrate human frailties: if they did not, they would have to be removed from the human family altogether and banished to Mount Olympus. Stokes suffered his own banishment after a brawl outside a Bristol nightclub; the cricketing authorities, made an example of him and he was dropped from the 2017 Ashes series in Australia (in which, incidentally, we were thrashed 4 -0). Which makes his heroics this summer somehow all the more glorious.
And maybe there is a political analogy to be drawn here – for, after all, politics is, for most of us, just another spectator sport. The past three years since the referendum have been ones of unparalleled political failure; the political class has thoroughly disgraced itself with Parliament obstructing the popular will. But wait! What is this? A new batsman at the crease, a flawed individual with tousled hair and an instinctive optimism about him. Could it be that Boris is about to play an innings that will be the making of his legend? He’s up against it, but then what were the odds against Stokes and England last Sunday?