Liverpool and Tottenham’s incredible comebacks against Barcelona and Ajax last week have got the world humming about the greatest sporting recoveries.
One side down by three goals and without two strikers after the first leg of their Champions League semi-final (Liverpool), and the other, Spurs, needing three second-half goals in the cauldron of the Johan Cruyff Arena, has left many claiming these as the greatest fightbacks in the history of sport.
I’m not about to trawl the records to see how many teams have prevailed after being three down following the first leg of a tournament as big as the Champions League. But I am going to put forward a few cricketing examples where the ‘impossible’ has been achieved by winning a Test match after being asked to follow-on, of which there are just two since England beat Australia in Sydney in 1894.
Chief among them is the Ashes miracle at Headingley in 1981, when England beat Australia by 18 runs. Put like that it doesn’t sound at all spine-tingling. Yet England followed-on 227 runs behind after being dismissed for 174 in their first innings after the Aussies had declared on 401-9 (the follow-on target in Tests can only be enforced if a team is at least 200 runs behind on first innings).
Worse was to come in that match when the home side slumped to 135-7 in their second innings, though many had written them off long before that parlous situation. For instance, Ladbrokes famously offered odds of 500-1 for an England win before the fourth day began, odds that would never have prevailed in the two-horse race at Anfield on Tuesday night which peaked at about 40-1 (for a 4-0 win in 90 minutes).
Infamously, two of the Australian team, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, had a flutter at Headingley, something forbidden of today’s cricketers.
If the odds suggested no hope for England there was also the defeatism of the players who mulled over the team’s position on the rest day at a barbecue held by Botham at his home in south Yorkshire. Most decided it was a hopeless cause and checked out of their hotel on the Monday morning, despite there being two days of the match to run.
Experienced pros rarely get it that wrong, but they hadn’t reckoned on arguably two of the greatest performances in all cricket – a swashbuckling, adrenaline-fuelled 149 by Beefy Botham and a whirlwind, zombie-focused 8-43 by Bob Willis, which blew Australia away for 111 as they chased a modest 130 runs for victory.
Rightfully, both deeds have retained their primacy in the folklore of English cricket, two performances drawn from places not even the duo in question are sure where they’d come from – which is what makes them so special.
Just under 20 years later, India managed a similar great escape to victory in a Test match, beating Australia after following-on in Kolkata.
The match, in 2001, followed a similar pattern to the one at Headingley. Australia won the toss and batted first and made 445 before dismissing India for 171. Australia’s captain, Steve Waugh, then asked India to follow-on with devastating circumstances for the match and series. India is a place where games tend to accelerate over the last day and half as the deterioration in conditions speeds up as well. When India began their second innings 274 runs behind, there was just under three days of the match remaining, so the playing surface was still good.
So good in fact that VVS Laxman made an imperious 281 and Rahul Dravid a superb 180. As Waugh rang the changes among his bowlers (nine were tried), Laxman and Dravid, combining zen-like concentration with fluid strokeplay, added 376 for the fifth wicket.
Having been in such a parlous position on day two, you’d have to suspect that India were just happy to draw the match. If the prospect of a win had been uppermost in their mind then surely they would have declared on the fourth evening, when they were 315 runs ahead, instead of an hour into the fifth day.
But having made the game safe from an Aussie ambush, they then went about dismissing them for 212, with Harbhajan Singh taking 6-73, as the pitch began to play tricks.
Having contributed little with the bat, Sachin Tendulkar took three of the other four wickets, perhaps revealing how dazed Australia were by the sheer weight of Laxman’s and Dravid’s batting.
That defeat enabled India to level the three-match series though whether Australia were still affected by the time the final Test began in Chennai three days later is open to conjecture.
In a close fought contest Australia lost by two wickets, the only time under Steve Waugh that they lost a series after losing successive Tests. In fact, Waugh only lost nine Tests out of the 57 he captained though the one that will remained etched in his memory was that incredible defeat in Kolkata where he asked India to follow-on.
Those advocates of Liverpool’s resurrection as the greatest ever comeback will no doubt argue that there was plenty of time left in those Tests to mount a counterattack. Yet fightbacks of the order discussed here generally rely on adrenaline forcing the issue and that tends to be delivered in short, sharp doses which turbo-charges participants, say a 90-minute football match, rather than as a slow drip-feed needed in events like Test matches.
There is an argument, though, that it is more difficult to maintain the kind of standard Laxman found and sustained for 10 and a half hours than the hour and a half, say, Liverpool’s miracle took.
One similarity is that both were up against the best teams in their respective sports at the time, something not the case for Botham and Willis where Australia were just the old enemy, West Indies being the greatest cricket team of that era. One thing they all share is the unexpected drama each performance supplied, and not just to the converted. Most people watch and follow sport to be entertained and to get a weekly dose of emotion. Just occasionally, it goes way beyond that remit.
Most of Britain will be have been lifted by Liverpool and Tottenham’s result the other night just as the country was by Botham and Willis in 1981, and India was in 2001. Mostly sport moves molehills, but just occasionally it moves mountains as well.
DEREK PRINGLE / Photo: Getty Images