Action Replay: A year of agony, miracle and wonder
The distilled perfection of Nadal-Federer, the unrivalled purity of Test cricket and Italy’s tearful exit from the World Cup qualifier—a look back at some of the highs and lows in sports in 2017
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Boys in the bubble
In The Boy In The Bubble, from his epic album Graceland, Paul Simon sang of “the way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky”. At the end of 2016, that was the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry. Federer had not won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon in 2012. As for Nadal, you had to go back to Roland Garros in 2014 for the last of his 14 major titles. In the years since, the relentless groundstrokes of Novak Djokovic had fetched him six Grand Slam wins. Britain’s Andy Murray, who won his third major at Wimbledon in 2016, had also flirted with the top of the rankings.
As the two old stagers progressed through the draw at Flinders Park in Melbourne, the prevailing emotion was disbelief. Surely, they couldn’t. It had been nearly six years since they last met in a Grand Slam final, Paris, in 2011, and you had to rewind to the highlights reel of the summer of 2008 for their most titanic tussle, on the Wimbledon grass. When they did make it to the final, eight years after they had last faced off for the Australian title, incredulity made way for nostalgia. But the two men themselves were in no mood for sentiment or self-congratulation.
The passage of time and a variety of injuries may have forced them to adapt their games in subtle ways, but the tennis on view was very much from the halcyon years. Federer covered the court like a dancer, with his wondrous touch propelling the ball off the strings, while Nadal, like the counter-puncher of old, came at him with rat-a-tat strokes on either side. When he went a break up in the final set, it seemed that his enviable record against Federer in the matches that truly matter—nine wins and two losses—would be extended. But Federer, the oldest Grand Slam finalist since Ken “Muscles” Rosewall at Wimbledon in 1974, found more than a second wind. A zephyr of accurate serves, pinpoint passes and deft touches took him to perhaps the greatest of tennis triumphs.
There were tears of joy, but also considerable appreciation for an opponent who had played his part in the latest, improbable chapter of one of sport’s most incredible rivalries. Federer would go on to master the Wimbledon lawns for the eighth time, while Nadal would journey to Paris and New York to annex his 15th and 16th Gram Slam trophies. But those successes didn’t come against each other. In that regard, the Australian Open of 2017 will always have a special place in sport’s annals. As Simon sang, “These are the days of miracle and wonder.”
Test of the year
Declining Test match attendance. Administrators paying lip service to the primacy of the oldest form of the game. Powerful TV executives predicting a bleak future. The problems that bedevil Test cricket are very real, and they aren’t going away. But for four days at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru last March, doomsday scenarios were pushed to the margins as India and Australia contested a Test match for the ages.
Having been ambushed by the steady left-arm spin of Steve O’Keefe on a lunar surface in Pune, India had no margin for error at a venue where Australia had recorded victories in 1998 and 2004. And when Nathan Lyon, the other half of Australia’s spin duo, skittled India with 8 for 50 on the opening day, the possibility of a series defeat was very real. But India’s bowlers, superbly marshalled by the ever-animated Virat Kohli, scrapped back tenaciously on the second day, allowing Australia just 197 runs while taking six wickets.
Faced with a deficit of 87, on a pitch that was offering plenty of assistance to the bowlers, India found a trio of heroes. K.L. Rahul set the tone with his belligerence, but it was the defiant defence of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane that nudged the scoreboard into territory where Australia would harbour doubts. By the time their pursuit of a tricky target began, the stands had filled up.
Wave after wave of noise and bouncing energy greeted the fall of each wicket. And as is so often the case with the most memorable matches, controversy was also an element. A low, skiddy delivery from Umesh Yadav gave India the game-breaking wicket of Steve Smith, the Australian captain, and before he was reluctantly sent on his way by the umpires, there was a foolish attempt to seek dressing-room advice on whether to go for a review. An incandescent Kohli stopped just short of calling Smith a cheat at the post-match press conference, after R. Ashwin’s masterful off-spin has given India victory.
The tinderbox atmosphere that final afternoon was reminiscent of the Kolkata and Chennai Tests of 2001, and a reminder to the game’s stakeholders that the venerable format’s survival is less about catchphrases and gimmickry, and everything to do with giving the crowds white-knuckle contests to savour.
In early June, Gianluigi Buffon finished on the losing side in a Champions League final for the third time. Juventus had dominated the first half, but had no answer once Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid turned on the afterburners in the second. Thwarted in his quest for the greatest prize in the club game, the veteran goalkeeper turned his attention to Italy’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
Beaten to second place in their group by a resurgent Spain, Italy faced a banana-skin play-off against Sweden, a side with tremendous discipline to offset a lack of imagination. The problem was that Italy had no creative spark either. Gian Piero Ventura, their coach, had no A-list jobs on his résumé, and his reluctance to use Lorenzo Insigne, whose displays had helped Napoli to the top of the Serie A table, was symptomatic of the confused thinking that defined his disastrous tenure.
Sweden scored a fortuitous goal at home, and then defied Italy on their turf for 90 minutes to ensure that the Azzurri would not be part of the World Cup for the first time since 1958, when a certain coconut-headed 17-year-old Brazilian answering to the nickname of Pele first captured the world’s imagination. As much as Federer’s tears of ecstasy, 2017 will be remembered for Buffon’s moist-eyed agony at the final whistle.
It’s not cricket
Just how do you summarize the Feroz Shah Kotla Test against Sri Lanka in December? Virat Kohli made a majestic double-hundred, an unprecedented sixth as captain. Sri Lanka’s fielders came out wearing masks on the second day. A couple of them were sick on the field of play. Others needed oxygen in the dressing room. And as Dinesh Chandimal and his team jousted valiantly for a final-day draw, even India’s Mohammed Shami found himself on his haunches, spewing his guts out.
If you go by what several Indian media outlets said, and logic isn’t usually their strongest suit, it was an example of Sri Lankan gamesmanship and inability to man up. After all, the Air Quality Index on most days had only said that the filthy haze was of “unhealthy” or “hazardous” quality. And because some of our players were used to sucking in air of such pristine quality, it was only natural that we expected our guests to follow suit. Well, guess what? This was a game of cricket, not an episode of Survivor. And in trying to justify the unjustifiable, influential voices in Indian cricket only shamed themselves, and the country they claim to be proud of.