Some moments in sport need no explanation. Were ET to have caught the final 30 seconds of the West Indies’ Test win against Australia on Sunday as his first experience of cricket, he would have been able to summarise the meaning of it pretty accurately.
You’ve seen the pictures. Bloody-toed Shamar Joseph, sprinting to the boundary rope as if only in reaching it could he capture the hugeness of the moment, and hold it in his disbelieving hands.
The West Indies team streaming across the Gabba, like ribbons from a magician’s pocket. Brian Lara crying on commentary, nearly three decades since his side last beat Australia in Australia.
England’s win against India on the same day featured our own debutant seven-wicket hero in Tom Hartley. ET may need SparkNotes to interpret the final minutes of that – particularly to understand the unlikeliness of that win. England are clearly not a Test underdog in the same way West Indies are, but this too was gloriously improbable.
Never forget sport is entertainment and it is culture. If Taylor Swift has taught us anything since her reboot of the NFL, it’s that Swifties come across a hell of a lot like football fans. Just rather more supportive. And what we want from this particular strand of culture is to be amazed, to be made to feel things, and to be surprised. Underdog wins always provide that.
But they are under threat. Top-level sport is a powerful, well-funded series of events. What we see as these gain greater status and more resources is it becomes more and more difficult for the underdog to win.
Take football – the sport that has reached the furthest boundaries of professionalisation – and look carefully. You will see nearly every rule change, from the introduction of five subs to the scrapping of the Champions League away goals rule in 2021, benefits the ‘big’ (read: better remunerated, more historical, better-supported) sides.
Test cricket comes with its own built-in set of big-nation advantages. Two innings provide multiple bites at the cherry as does five-days’ play.
Not only do the big three of Australia, India and England have better staff and more money, they also play 50 per cent more Tests. The Windies can’t offer that, so the allure of short-form franchise cricket makes even more sense to their internationals than to Australia’s.
Now when two equally matched big teams meet, home advantage provides the cheat code. Why is it so hard to win an away Ashes?
It is not only because you’re playing the country as well as the game. It’s because of the magic of the territory in cricket – the surface you know best will sneak into your pores, like the richness offered by sherry casks to whisky kept within them.
It may sound disproportionate to compare England’s status as an underdog in India to what the West Indies overcame to beat Australia.
But to overturn that 190-run deficit from the first innings, something England have only done three times before in their history, and to do it in India, where the locals hold so many of the cards – when Ben Stokes said this was his best victory as captain, you knew he meant it.
There was alchemy at work in the England win – elements combining to deliver something special. For the West Indies, Joseph was the lightning rod. It was stunning to watch him and realise only two years ago he left a job in security to focus on cricket full-time.
Our West Indies reporter for TNT Sports Cricket Nikhil Uttamchandani has known Joseph (left) for some time and says what has defined him is his belief. On Sunday, like England’s own, it was mesmerising.
And perhaps in the face of all the ever-increasing odds, that is really the underdog’s secret.
Kate is presenting TNT Sports’ coverage of the second Test between India and England with Alistair Cook and Steven Finn from 3.30am UK time this Friday