Home / News / Business Of Life /  The year of the underdog


They really shouldn’t have won it. A bunch of disparate youngsters, who had played no more than three matches as a team before the tournament (losing all three), with few role models among their seniors and coached by a relatively unknown Englishman, up against a well-oiled machine with no shortage of match practice, a couple of Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts in the bag—and more to play for—and a true legend of the game, Rahul Dravid, as coach.

Of course, the youngsters from West Indies won that Under19 World Cup final, setting in motion a truly Super Sunday and finally justifying that much abused tag line loved by television broadcasters. Through the day, as I switched from cricket to football, the story was one of pressure—and how each team in those matches responded to that pressure. With the English Premier League (EPL) entering the wonderfully named “squeaky bum" time, and with some of sport’s biggest contests—the Euros, followed by the Olympics—coming up, this year’s success stories will be as much about mental strength as physical prowess.

The U19 final in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was the first cricket match I had watched from start to finish in a long, long time (not ideal, I know, given my day job). I’m not sure why I did so; maybe it was because the West Indies were playing. I have long been sentimental about any team from that region. Maybe it was curiosity; was Gidron Pope really that good a slogger, was Alzarri Joseph really the next in the line of great Caribbean fast bowlers? Maybe it was a hunch that the underdog would have his day. As it happened, Pope flopped, but Joseph’s blistering opening burst wrecked India’s top order and gave his team the edge going into the break.

Later that evening were two table-topping matches in the EPL. First up, Leicester City, the surprise league leaders, against pedigreed yet perennial pretenders Arsenal, whose last EPL title was in 2004. Leicester, for those who came in late, were fighting relegation to the lower league one year ago; they began this season as 5,000-1 outsiders to win the title but here they are, in February, top of the pile.

Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your ar*e, said the great Australian all-rounder Keith Miller, using his experience as a World War II pilot to put cricket in perspective. Pressure is also the gleaming silver trophy at handshaking distance, especially to those who have never won it before.

The pressure on Leicester has been intense. First off, the pressure to avoid relegation this season. Then they strung together a series of results and that pressure was off. Even as Leicester hovered at or around the top of the league table, their affable, seemingly innocuous manager Claudio Ranieri insisted their target was “40 points", the estimated total needed to stave off relegation. Once that total was achieved, last month, they returned to the top spot and have stayed there ever since, playing carefree, relentless but always exhilarating football.

Now here’s when the pressure really starts. Now, with more than two-thirds of the season done, is when they have to be taken seriously as contenders for the title. And, crucially, they have to see themselves in that light too, and not as a team punching above their weight, playing above their station. They are rightful occupants of the top spot. Like with the West Indies team at the innings break in that Under19 final, winning is no longer an option. It is the only choice.

For 54 minutes against Arsenal, Leicester did well; they even took the lead (though via a dodgy penalty decision). Then Danny Simpson got a second yellow and was sent off and Leicester were up against a skilful, speedy team and a crafty old manager in Arsène Wenger. Arsenal, backed by a boisterous crowd at their Emirates Stadium, were under their own pressure; too often they have been the most watchable team in the Premier League but too brittle to win the title. They needed to win too.

Arsenal scored, it was 1-1. Their pressure intensified; they were desperate to win. For 20 minutes, they battered the Leicester goal; in those 20 minutes they retained something like 90% of the possession. Leicester held firm; one man short, their bodies were wilting but the spirit wasn’t. At one point in this onslaught, Jamie Vardy, Leicester’s record-breaking goalscorer, chased five Arsenal players by turn as they passed the ball, almost taunting him.

The game went into injury time. Four minutes for Leicester to play out; 4 minutes for Arsenal to cling on to their title hopes. The minutes were almost up when Leicester conceded a free kick just outside their penalty area. It was going to be the last kick of the match. All Leicester needed to do was keep it out; they cracked, Arsenal didn’t, and in the blink of an eye it was 2-1 to the home team and the story changed.

Leicester are still in pole position to win their first-ever league title. The bookies favour them, they have the fewest matches left to play out of all the other contenders (who are still part of other competitions) and their team unity is almost anachronistically strong. The three main challengers all have their own problems too; Arsenal also face the pressure of finally winning their first title since 2004; Tottenham Hotspur, the pressure of winning their first since 1961; and Manchester City, the pressure of justifying the vast sums of money spent on their players. Leicester’s weaknesses are within: In 30 years, Ranieri has managed 15 clubs across four countries and never won a single league title. He was known in his native Italy as “zero tituli". His squad is tight but lean; an injury to one of his key players could wreck everything.

And then there’s the Devon Loch syndrome. The run in to a Premier League season finale has occasionally featured the spectacular and inexplicable collapse of the leading team, as happened with Devon Loch, a champion racehorse who, leading the pack on the home stretch in the 1956 Grand National steeplechase race, jumped when he shouldn’t have, landed on his stomach and lost the race. In 1995-96, Newcastle United led the league by 10 points in January; by March, Manchester United had narrowed it down to a point and eventually won the league by four points. Sixteen seasons later, United suffered their own collapse; with six matches to go, they led their neighbours, Manchester City, by eight points and the title seemed to be in the bag. City whittled down that lead so that on the last day of the season all they had to do was win their match to win the title; which they did, in dramatic fashion.

If pressure could do in Alex Ferguson, the most seasoned of warhorses, what hope is there for Ranieri? Do his players play with the same uninhibited exuberance they have had all this season, a style that has often left their opponents gasping, or do they batten the hatches and play the percentage game? Do they play like underdogs or can they handle being the favourites? Do they play like Leicester or like the West Indian youngsters? Should they even stop to think about all this?

Leicester have been the bravest, toughest, most fearless team this Premier League season. Their most difficult test awaits them.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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