What is the cruellest moment you have witnessed in sport?
The 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Bayern Munich were leading 1-0, until two thunderbolt strikes from Manchester United in the dying-moments subjected them to a 2-1 loss.
Or, a couple months later, South Africa stumped in that semi-final at Edgbaston, as Australia marched on in the 1999 World Cup.
How about Derek Redmond, whose hamstring snapped during the 400-meter dash at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and his father helped him cross the finish line?
Sport – watching, playing or simply commenting on it – gives us immense joy. It takes something from us in return too – at times, sapping our emotional quotient, and numbing our minds. These are rare moments, wherein even champions seem like mere mortals, and the average viewer is but left stupefied.
When it makes you question what you witnessed, sport is cruel. It assumes the shape of tears flowing as Redmond’s sweat and toil of a lifetime were taken from him in an instant on the grandest stage of all.
It cries out as the inconsolable desperation of Bayern players banging the ground and shaking in disbelief at two goals in a span of two minutes. It resembles the ghostly, forlorn figure of Hansie Cronje, staring out of the Edgbaston dressing room. It resembles the ashen face of Lance Klusener and the direction-less walk of Allan Donald even as eleven Australians celebrate in one photo-frame.
This cruel nature of sport is also Kane Williamson’s humility, after New Zealand tied – didn’t lose to England in the 2019 Cricket World Cup final – twice over, and yet, lost.
“Laugh or cry, it’s your choice, isn’t it? It’s not anger. There’s a lot of disappointment, I suppose. Yeah, the guys are really feeling it and I think it’s probably more down to some of the uncontrollables (sic),” said Williamson, post the ‘defeat’ on Sunday, delivering, arguably, the most stunning press conference ever.
How do you smile after a game that you have not really lost? The differentiation between New Zealand and England, twice, was marginal. A freak overthrow, ricocheting off Ben Stokes, and a run-out by just a yard, decided the game. And of course, there was also the boundary count after two ties in the span of 30 minutes. An athlete can prepare for fitness and technical requirements, for conditions and opponents, but can he/she really prepare for such psychological duress?
Cynics will argue it comes with the territory. Well then, so does anger, frustration, annoyance, et al. And here was this man, smiling, shrugging, joking even, being endearingly witty, and distributing life wisdom in a moment of gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, heart-burning defeat.
Guess it is in New Zealand’s very fabric. You trust Jimmy Neesham when he holds a low catch and points a finger to say out. You trust Trent Boult when he steps on the rope trying an outlandish catch and Martin Guptill signals a six instead. You trust none of them to say a word when the ball races down to the boundary, unfairly ricocheting off Stokes, who holds up his arms apologetically. (Lest you forget, Stokes was born in Christchurch, New Zealand.)
Eoin Morgan described this bunch of Kiwi cricketers as role models for kids. They are nice guys, yes, and Williamson is the very epitome of this great respect paid by their opponents. Sample this story – in his late school years, during a game, the coach reversed the batting line-up, with Williamson pushed down to number seven.
When he came together with the number eleven batsman, there were still 50-odd runs needed from the last five overs or so. Williamson farmed strike on the last ball of every over, scored all the runs, and won the game for his side, even as the tail-ender didn’t face a single ball. When they walked off the field, Williamson though stopped at the boundary line, and waited for his partner to cross first, applauding his efforts and ignoring his own.
Even at that ripe age, Williamson was the very definition of humility, and it is no surprise to see him rise in stature.
‘Everyone should be a little different’
Player of the tournament, he was peerless. As batsman, he has single-handedly shouldered his team’s burden in this World Cup. As captain, he read conditions to the point, backing his bowlers, setting fields to strangulate the opposition, and marshalling his side for a title triumph.
Well, almost, for the record books don’t have any heart for nice guys. They are known to finish last, or runners’ up, as in this pertinent case. The underlying point herein is Williamson’s reluctance to get involved in a greater debate about the future direction of the game. It is easy to sit and mull over possible changes that potentially benefit your position, even for argument’s sake.
When asked about the boundary-counting rule, Morgan countered and asked for a viable alternative. Earlier, when team India was knocked out, Virat Kohli discussed the possibility of introducing IPL-type play-offs and not semi-final knockouts. Williamson, meanwhile, again smiled and shrugged, and smiled more.
And he said, “I suppose you never thought you would have to ask that question and I never thought I would have to answer it,” when asked about the boundary-count repeatedly. “I don’t even know what the boundary count was but we were slightly behind. Yeah, very, very tough to – yeah, there you go.”
If only, all of us had Zen-like powers as Williamson does to absorb such a loss, sleep over it and move on. “Everyone is different and that’s the beauty of this world. And everyone should be a little different as well,” he said, that smile breaking into laughter.
How was this happening? In defeat, you want to search a haunting, disconsolate expression. Or, maybe it was just an inane reading of one’s own mind space at this outcome, with the urge to go hug him, and each of the players in that New Zealand dressing room.
They did not lose; they simply ended up on the wrong side of what is right as per cricket’s weird logic and rules. Of course, there is this burning urge to remedy this situation, but you cannot. And what’s worse – any attempt to rectify it is only gross injustice to New Zealand’s efforts.
It is a depressing reality, this result and this situation, albeit you have to live with it.
And New Zealand will too; for this team imbibes the very character and soul of their leader, Kane Williamson, who is the very best, cricket has to offer.