I love the holidays.
After a busy school term, they are a precious time to relax and decompress. To watch sport on TV, to fiddle with a crossword puzzle, to devour a bestselling novel, to nap. Or to do absolutely nothing, a skill in itself, and one, according to my wife, I am quite good at.
I also enjoy trips down memory lane, perusing journals from high school seasons of long ago. To re-read articles and examine old photos. To look at my notes, consider the planning that went into them, the main themes, the catch phrases, as well as various points scribbled after the fact in the margins. Retracing the schedule, with the game results inked in, further reminds me of both the satisfying wins and gut wrenching losses.
And, every so often, thankfully not too often, I must recollect other particularly galling defeats. When, from handy positions, teams I am coaching suffer complete meltdowns from which there is no return.
Why? What causes these unforeseen, abrupt and dramatic slumps in form? Well, I don’t have concrete answers, and, despite mountains of analysis, neither do the supposed experts. Indeed, there does not appear to be any specific rhyme or reason, even when considering the magnitude of the event, the size of the blown lead, the historical significance of the collapse or which flameout is the most excruciating.
And there have been some doozies! Total disintegration is certainly not confined just to high school contests, or at the amateur level. Indeed, fully fledged and fit professionals, dripping with talent and experience, individually and collectively can be just as guilty. Their failures, whether over weeks, days, hours or just minutes, can be in turn brutal, mystifying and heartbreaking to observe. Can remain etched in our consciousness for ages, can define an individual or a team for a lifetime.
Looking back over sporting history there are no shortage of examples. The 1942 Detroit Red Wings, the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, Paris St Germain in the 2017 Champions Cup to name just a few. England in multiple World or European Cup Soccer penalty shootouts.
Or how about the Northern Iowa University Men’s basketball team, up 12 vs Texas A and M, with just 31 seconds left to play in regulation, in the 2016 NCAA tournament? Up a dozen points, and on the verge of the school’s most significant win ever! Having played an almost perfect game. Only to then fall in double overtime, somehow having butchered the lead with a sick and sudden display of nerves and ineptitude. Completely cracking under pressure.
Moreover, save a thought also for Jean Van de Velde, now immortalized on You Tube. Two decades have passed since the then little known French golfer blows a three shot lead on the final hole of the 1999 Open championship. Up to that point, he alone has tamed a savagely difficult Carnoustie course. Then, thanks to extremely poor judgement and a series of spectacular brain fades, he speeds towards ignominy. One pundit labels the implosion as “epic in scale and preordained to end badly; hubris and catharsis and all of the elements of Greek tragedy mainlined into one par four.”
BBC commentator Peter Alliss goes one better. With Van de Velde wading aimlessly in the water, having dumped his third shot into a burn by the green, he implores “will somebody kindly go and stop this?” But of course, it is far too late for that.
Switching to cricket, last week’s test match in Adelaide, between Australia and India, sees a capitulation among the worst in the sport’s history.
The talented visitors, despite bombing several straightforward catches, employ aggressive bowling and 74 runs from talismanic captain Virat Kohli to take a useful lead into the second innings. Looking ahead to a full day of batting on a perfect pitch and in ideal playing conditions, they plan to build on their advantage and force Australia to chase the game.
What actually transpires is the unthinkable. Credit the hosts for some relentlessly quick and accurate bowling. Time and again, they hammer a consistent line and length, angling the ball away slightly from the righthanders, with the occasional bouncer mixed in. Like major league pitchers firing strike after strike, low and a fraction off the plate, before then further unsettling the hitter with high, inside fastballs.
The Indian batsmen become transfixed at the crease, almost hypnotized. One after another, lemming like, they offer the same hesitant defensive shots. The wickets tumble, via edges to the wicketkeeper or weak prods back towards the bowler. Even the imperious Kohli, the best batsman in the world, is not immune. He too looks confused. Almost in panic to stop the rot, he flashes recklessly at a standard offering and is caught out, for a meagre 4 runs.
With him goes the last hope of resistance. India crumbles, all out for the paltry total of 36, the joint fifth lowest test score ever. Soon after, Australia goes up 1-0 in the series.
Back to those reasons why. Once again, who knows? Maybe, under pressure, the brain begins working at cross purposes. Negative psychology takes over and players become cautious and afraid when momentum swings against them. Panic sets in and has a snowball effect on others.
Or, perhaps overconfidence, cockiness or arrogance are the culprits? Maybe it is anger, or anxiety and insecurity. Or a toxic mixture?
Whatever the case, when players and teams completely fall apart, it is always, in its own ghoulish way, must watch theatre. Viewing the shift to mental and physical mush, as, amid the disarray, like sheep they follow each other off the cliff.
Fortunately, India's possible redemption is nigh, with the second test set for December 26 at the iconic MCG, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. They desperately need a bounce back performance. Hopefully, it is not too late.
Whatever happens I will be a very interested spectator.