Cricket

It’s been a year of nailbiting NRL and AFL grand finals, wonderful world cups, Ashes accusations and Novak Djokovic winning yet again. But four things ranked above all others. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Top of the table for 2023

Matildas players jump in celebration.
Matildas players during the World Cup penalty shootout against France in August.
Credit: Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

The Matildas’ World Cup

What might now be forgotten about the Matildas’ exhilarating FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign this year was how poorly it started. Gone for the first two matches (and eligible but not required for their third) was the iconic Sam Kerr, felled by a strained calf. In the opening match, against a dogged but inferior Ireland, the Australians were lucky to win 1-0 after an incoherent performance that depended on toothless long balls. Despite improving in their second match, they were outplayed by Nigeria and lost 3-2. Given they had yet to play their group’s highest ranked side, Canada, the Matildas were flirting with an embarrassing exit from the group stage.

But then something clicked, and the Matildas’ transformation over their three group games was remarkable to watch. Australia ran rampant against Canada, who were never in it and were compelled at times to simply spectate the incisive, near-telepathic passes between the Matildas’ midfield and forwards. Australia won 4-0 and topped their group. Kerr had been declared fit to play off the bench but was never needed. Given the Tillies’ dominance, it was better to let her convalesce for another game.

Another confident performance against Denmark in the round of 16 qualified the Matildas for a quarter-final with the highly fancied French. Meanwhile, stadiums were full and television audiences for Australia’s matches were swelling historically. A national fever was developing.

Against France, millions of Australians were given a harsh lesson in the physiology of the nervous system: sweaty palms, increased blood pressure and a beleaguered digestive tract. Is there anything in all of sport more torturous than soccer’s penalty shootout? I don’t know of one. It is cruel and queasy-making.

Against the French in the quarter-final, an open but goalless game, we experienced the longest shootout in World Cup history – men’s or women’s. A brutally dramatic, scarcely credible epic of 17 minutes and 20 penalties (21 if you count the retaken one). Usually, the initially scheduled five penalties each suffices; that night, nearly every player left on the park was conscripted to take one.

Australia’s goalkeeper Mackenzie Arnold, the player of the match, saved four, and the Matildas triumphed – booking a place in the semi-final against England.

It was there they met their match, their delirium-making momentum finally arrested by the hard-nosed professionalism of the Lionesses. But the Sam Kerr goal – a wonder-strike I’ll never forget – left us with one last, great memory. It had been a triumphant tournament.

James becomes NBA’s leading scorer

In 1984, the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtook Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time NBA scoring record of 31,419. Abdul-Jabbar added to this fearsome tally for another six seasons, before retiring in 1989 with 38,387 career points. Many thought it would never be broken. And until this year, it wasn’t – so lofty a pinnacle was it that the man who would eventually surpass it wasn’t born when Abdul-Jabbar eclipsed Chamberlain.

It was another Laker, LeBron James, who did it. On February 8 this year, aged 38 and in his 20th NBA season, James broke the record with a fadeaway jumper at home against Oklahoma. Play was briefly suspended to allow an on-court presentation. Abdul-Jabbar was on hand to gift James the game ball, and later said: “LeBron’s career is one of someone who planned to dominate this game. And it’s gone for almost 20 years now. You have to give him credit for just the way he played and for the way he’s lasted and dominated. He has that indefinable essence that they call leadership.”

Now in his 21st season, James will turn 39 on December 30, and still remains one of the league’s best players. At time of writing, he’s averaging 25.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists – placing him easily in the league’s top 20 players for two of those categories. The longevity of his talent is extraordinary, arguably unprecedented (Michael Jordan – with whom James is endlessly, fanatically but irresolvably compared – led his Chicago Bulls at the age of 35 to a sixth championship, and his final NBA season, played with the Washington Wizards when he was 40, yielded impressive statistics also: 20 points, six rebounds and almost four assists a game).

An athletic freak, James’s strength, athleticism and intelligence means he could plausibly, and competitively, play in any court role. He has won four league MVPs, and five NBA championships – he has at least one ring with all three teams he’s played for. The league’s highest ever scorer, he also sits fourth for assists. In 21 seasons, he has barely experienced serious injury, nor has he ever terribly scandalised himself. Perhaps the most ignominious moment – the pompous media orchestration of The Decision, when he announced he was “taking his talents” to Miami – seems trivial in retrospect.

The Ashes

It seemed unlikely that the drama of the 2005 Ashes – one of my favourite all-time sporting events – could ever be topped. But this year it was. A refreshingly swaggering England, empowered by the flamboyant philosophy of “Bazball” (which seems part buzzword, part national myth), were confident of finally winning the Ashes for the first time since 2015.

The first and second Tests were both nailbiters; both were won by Australia. England were a fun combination of reckless and swashbuckling, and captain Ben Stokes came close to achieving perhaps the greatest Test run chase of all time in the second Test. It was also in that Test that Jonny Bairstow obliviously strolled from his crease before the over had officially ceased and was cheekily stumped by Alex Carey. There followed days of dreary references to “the spirit of the game” and a grossly incensed Lord’s members room that booed and jostled with Australian players at lunch.

Tests three and five were won by England – such was the pace of these matches and England’s incaution that draws were out of the question, unless enforced by the weather – and the Three Lions would very likely have famously overcome their 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 but for Manchester’s famous inclemency. The Fourth Test was rained out, denying England a win they seemed destined to enjoy after a monster first innings advantage.

Two-all meant Australia retained the Ashes – a convention writer Gideon Haigh suggested afterwards, quite persuasively, should be scrapped – and while it was amusing to watch Piers Morgan rage impotently about the cheating Aussies and the injustice of the weather, it’s true that England were likely denied a historic Ashes triumph and cricket was denied the fullest expression of an exceptional series. (Full disclosure: I think Australia winning the World Cup in India the greater achievement, but this triumph was discussed in detail recently in this column.)

Ange goes to the big dance

It can probably no longer be said Ange Postecoglou is an outsider, but for a very long time he was. In Australia, where he had migrated as a boy from Greece, many thought Postecoglou abrasive or naive for his unapologetic passion, ambition for Australian football, and insistence on a high, open and fearless style. After winning the Asian Cup as Socceroos coach, Postecoglou was bitterly surprised by the yawns of indifference it induced. He quit the national job not long after qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and effectively exiled himself by moving to Japan.

But it was not the self-harming or petulant move some thought it to be. He had a plan to manage in Europe, the acme of world football, and while transforming the fortunes of Yokohama F. Marinos over three seasons, he caught the eye of Scottish giants Celtic FC.

When he moved to Glasgow, plenty of fans were angry, baffled. Who was this unknown Aussie given custody of their sacred club? As a boy, Postecoglou suffered racist condescension; as a man, he was often thought insufficiently pragmatic in a country that revered other sports. Now, having found his way to Europe, he was mocked for his obscurity and being Australian. An outsider once more, he might have been forgiven for thinking he was doomed either way: for being Greek in Australia or an Aussie in Scotland.

But Postecoglou has unwavering faith in his knowledge, style and systems. He knew his obscurity would become irrelevant with results. And the results came, almost lavishly: five titles in two seasons, including back-to-back Scottish Premiership wins. Postecoglou had quickly become a city darling, or at least to the half that supported the green and white Hoops.

In July, he was appointed manager of Tottenham Hotspur, becoming the first Australian to hold such a position in the English Premier League – the world’s best domestic league. The EPL bears no comparison to the Scottish Premiership he had just left, and once again his appointment was met with variations of condescension – some polite, some angry.

Spurs went undefeated in its first nine matches, was top of the league, and Postecoglou enjoyed the league’s managerial record for most points earnt in their first nine games. Results have been much more mixed since, but Spurs sit in the top five and you won’t find any football fan now who does not know Postecoglou’s name.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Top of the table".

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