In Good Conscience

Lions' turn to bat against the odds and confound expectation

If a week is a long time in politics, six days is all it takes to move heaven and earth in sports.

Pakistan's humbling of the mighty India (and before that of the host country England) to win the cricket Champions Trophy in London last Sunday was, in its way, as astonishing as Leicester City winning the English Premier League title a year ago.

Because of terrorism and sectarianism, Pakistan had not played any international cricket on its soil in eight years. India began as the reigning world No. 1 at the 50-over format, and its 1.34 billion population is six times greater than Pakistan.

But it takes only 11 team players on a given day to win a game of cricket, or football. Eleven men bonded by the belief that they can, and they will, beat the odds.

In Auckland tonight, the numbers are also skewed in a 15-man game.

New Zealand, population 4.6 million, tackle the British and Irish Lions (combined population 70.4 million). If human resource count for anything, you would imagine that the Lions could devour the All Blacks.

It doesn't happen that way, and almost never has since the formation of New Zealand rugby at the start of the 20th century.

British and Irish Lions prop Kyle Sinckler getting treatment ahead of his side's Test against the All Blacks in Auckland today. The visitors are seeking their first win in New Zealand for 46 years.
British and Irish Lions prop Kyle Sinckler getting treatment ahead of his side's Test against the All Blacks in Auckland today. The visitors are seeking their first win in New Zealand for 46 years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It takes only 11 team players on a given day to win a game of cricket, or football. Eleven men bonded by the belief that they can, and they will, beat the odds.

Britain exported rugby, and cricket, and for that matter association football to the world. And it has spent the better part of history trying to get the balls back from nations who keep on finding superior ways to move with the times.

India and Pakistan, partitioned by the Brits, can beguile the old country with the bat, and bamboozle it with the ball. One key bowler at the Oval cricket ground last Sunday was Mohammad Amir, a quick who served a five-year ban after bowling deliberate no-balls in a betting fix in 2010.

Another was Shadab Khan, an 18-year-old leg spinner who is just two months into his national team career.

Inevitably, there are cries of "fix" from the Indian side of the border. Cries that so far come from actors looking for a stage.

Unless or until there is evidence of wrongdoing, we should choose to believe in the power of sport to confound expectation. Leicester, for sure, did not get compliance from 19 opposing sides to pull off their shock win last year.

Moving on, tonight's rugby Test in Auckland is in every sense of the word a heavyweight contest.

Nobody has beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park for 23 years. Double that time span, and that was the one and only time in history that the Lions have won a Test series in New Zealand.

There are two things in sport where this small island in Oceania is a truly global competitor. One is the America's Cup, where great wealth, great sailing and great technology are fused on the high seas. The other is down on muddied earth, where men of sometimes monstrous sizes lock horns.

The British and Irish Lions are drawn from four nations of which England, Scotland and the Irish Republic all have larger populations than New Zealand. The task of the Lions is to draw together, over a short span of time, the best of all their players, to live, work, train and compete in a brutal competitive climate Down Under.

The Lions' head coach is Warren Gatland, a born and bred New Zealander. If you can't beat them, hire one of them.

Being on home territory increases, rather than lessens, the hostility towards him. He travelled there with 41 players and 36 aides including assistant coaches, experts in sports science, medicine, analysis, public relations and freight planning.

England and New Zealand are literally night and day apart. The Lions had jet lag inside them when they were made to hit the ground running on June 3. They have played six "warm-up" games against regional sides that all fancy themselves as being the next biggest and best things to the All Blacks.

The attrition of those contests has meant putting back onto planes bound for home players requiring surgery to head or body injuries that are part and parcel of this ferocious sport.

With each departure, Gatland has to alter his plan, pick replacements, rework his formation, realign his men, and come out running in Auckland with the 15 he considers most likely to shake up the best of his own countrymen.

We are talking monsters here. The two locks on either side are the biggest, beefiest men out there. Their job is to bind the scrum, and force back the might of the opposing scrum.

Stand well back while I tell you that the New Zealand locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock stand above two-metres tall, and heave bodies that in Retallick's case amounts to 123kg.

Their opposite numbers George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones are English and Welsh, both scaling 1.98m and weighing 118kg. Kruis gets his surname from a German grandfather, whose Christian name was Leo.

Born to be there, perhaps. Born to use his bulk in the second row of the power house in the scrum. And to use his height and leaping ability in the line outs.

Heave for heave, bruise for bruise, they go against the battering rams in All Black. Against boys whose dreams are to represent New Zealand.

The British media who have toured with these Lions, including former England and Lions head coach Clive Woodward, are backing the tourists to win today's first Test.

In doing so, they go against the grain of history. Since 1900, the Blacks have played 80 games at Eden Park. They have won 68, drawn two, and lost 10 - but the last time they were turned over in Auckland was 38 Test matches ago.

One way or another, prepare to feel the ground move.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Lions' turn to bat against the odds and confound expectation'. Print Edition | Subscribe