What Ifs, the alternative history of sport

When the future is uncertain, new stories emerge from history. And sometimes the past appears uncertain too!

Transformation: Former India opener Navjot Sidhu has written about how a newspaper headline calling him a strokeless wonder inspired him to blossom into an aggressive opening batsman.   -  V. V. KRISHNAN

When the future is uncertain, turn to the past. The pandemic has forced the media to go backwards, to either mark anniversaries or reassess various victories and defeats. The past, as the man said, is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

What mistakes did Tiger Woods make in 1999, should India have decided to field first on winning the toss at the 2003 World Cup final which ultimately Australia dominated?

Then there are the What Ifs, the alternative history of sport. What if Sri Lanka had not won the 1996 World Cup? What if Bob Beamon had pulled a muscle ahead of the long jump final at the 1968 Olympics? What if P. T. Usha had won the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Olympics? What if Usain Bolt had decided not to travel to Beijing for the Olympics? The range of this game is restricted only by the player’s imagination.

What if a sharp-eyed relative had not noticed that the baby Sunil had been accidentally switched in his crib at the hospital with the child of a fisherman? Would we have heard of Gavaskar the great opening batsman?

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All this is great fun. And can provide endless hours of fun. Like a smart jigsaw puzzle (if there is such a thing) which can be put together in different ways to make diverse pictures.

One of sport’s most-often used lines is: We wuz robbed! Did a referee error cost Germany the 1966 World Cup football? England’s third goal (in extra time) was scored by Geoff Hurst in extra time. The ball hit the crosspiece and bounced in the goalmouth. The Swiss referee checked with the linesman who said it was a goal. England now led 3-2 in extra time, and scored again to win 4-2.

Twenty years later, those watching replays on television saw what the referee couldn’t — that Argentina’s Diego Maradona had scored a goal against England with his fist. He later blamed (or credited) the Almighty for it, calling it a goal scored by the head of Maradona and the hand of god. The Tunisian referee had an unusual excuse for missing the handball. He was on haemorrhoid treatment, he said, and that affected his sight.

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Close calls are a part of sport, although with instant replays now available, many of these are corrected. In Delhi, 74-75, Viv Richards, playing his second Test was reprieved by the umpire at 12. He was caught behind, stayed his ground and went on to make 192. The bowler and captain in that match Venkatraghavan was dropped for the next Test. Poor decisions affect a whole range of players.

Travelling into the past is an occasion to acknowledge misjudgements made by experts too. Navjot Sidhu has written about how a newspaper headline calling him a strokeless wonder inspired him to blossom into an aggressive opening batsman. Other sportsmen have similar stories too.

When the future is uncertain, new stories emerge from history. And sometimes the past appears uncertain too!