THE greatest sporting comeback of all time, need I remind you, happened on Sunday, March 12 2006 at Wanderers Stadium. Ricky Ponting smashed 164 runs off 154 balls. Australia set South Africa the task of reaching 434 runs in 50 overs.
Some people left the stadium soon after the Australian innings, not able to bear the humiliation that was bound to follow. I wasn’t at the stadium but I was watching — by the end we all were. South Africa replied with 438. We won by one wicket, with one ball to spare. Glorious, as they would say in cricket. Herschelle Gibbs hit 175 off 142 balls. We scored 400 runs in less than three-and-a-half hours — that’s about two runs a minute, give or take a tea break.
After the game the joke going around was: How do you put a champagne cork back into the bottle? Ask the Australians.
After Sunday’s final round in the Ryder Cup the Americans may also have to consider that answer.
Whether you watch it on the couch, gather around a braai or go to the stadium, or whether you’re on the field, playing, sport will always offer up lessons. Who knows that better than we South Africans do?
I was at Loftus Versfeld, home of proper rugby, to watch what I hope will come to be referred to as the Springbok comeback match against the Wallabies. I love beating Australia. Why? Because they’re so damn good at sport and so damn smug about their safe, happy, sunshine-filled, middle of the bell curve lives, that’s why — particularly those Australians who were born here.
The game was about so many things on Saturday. Some changed players, a change of strategy, a few lucky breaks, a willingness to take some risk. Of course, we finally had to believe we could do it. At five tries to one it was a proper win.
I support Europe in the Ryder Cup. I suppose it’s because we’re in the same time zone. It’s also because of the American attitude towards the whole thing. When the US players are winning they are unbearable, boastful and borderline bad sports — cheering European mistakes as they did leading up to their 10-6 lead, going into the final day. When they lost they sulked. Tiger threw a putt and only three US players pitched up for the traditional after party hosted by the winners. Ag shame.
I love the format of the Ryder Cup. A selection of Europe’s best, coming together to take on the biggest golfing nation in the world (and then beating them four times out of the last five, very much on US’s home turf on Sunday).
It is like a Barbarian rugby side in rugby. Everyone wears their home team socks but they put on one jersey and combine their different skills and styles to take on top international sides in world rugby — the stitched together against the well knitted. It is always a good game, sometimes they even win.
I wonder if there is a political possibility here. Fragmented opposition parties could surely form some sort of temporary alliance (on some common cause) to take on an otherwise dominant ruling party, to bring about change or even just to resist an unchallenged majority. Impossible? I’m not so sure.
I wonder whether there is an opportunity in business — for the little guys to take on the big guys?
Back to the Ryder Cup. The teams were pretty evenly balanced — the US team included five out of the top 10 in the world and Europe’s team had four of the top five on their side. That’s exactly how Jose Maria Olazabal played it, for the final day singles. Europe had to have some early wins, they had to break the back of the impossible comeback as early as possible — early failure would have meant early victory for the US … the last seven games would have been irrelevant if US had won the first four and tied the fifth. They put their best in-form players in first.
I was glued to my television screen for the whole final day. This is what I saw:
• 1. Individuals — each with their own game and character and style and language and separate following and franchise, playing as a team, submitting to the singular purpose of the team: no individual win good enough to win, no individual loss bad enough to lose. The sum of the parts was all that mattered, down to the last half-point.
• 2. Allegiance — to a circle of stars against the formidable stars and stripes on the other side. Europe has not overcome the challenges that aspirant economic union has presented to them, the economic union they sought in the first place to compete with the US. Perhaps they’ll never become a team — unable to set aside the political and geographic divides, unable to subject sovereign monetary policy to overriding fiscal discipline? Perhaps they should take up golf.
• 3. Cool heads and steady nerves — the outcome would only be known with the penultimate put of the entire tournament, but Europe showed the "take it one putt at a time" patience and determination that would be required to see through this remarkable turnaround, to match the biggest ever comeback in golf’s premier team event of the world
4. Excellence — the standard of golf was at the highest level, both sides, because of the competition.
To win in business, the requirements are no different.