The greatest sportsman of the 20th century was a title won in most people eyes by either Mohammed Ali or Donald Bradman. My personal choice was Michael Jordan.
Partly this is because I saw him at close quarters on a number of occasions, partly because of his amazing ability to consistently win crucial matches in the dying seconds. His Airness was voted the most valuable player in the NBA finals on six occasions and holds the NBA record for most points scored per match.
That perhaps conceals the exceptional sangfroid of his performances at critical stages of basketball matches. Almost every time I watched the Chicago Bulls in the finals, the score was level at something like 82-82 with about 30 seconds to go. One of his team-mates would give him the ball. Calmly he bounced it up and down in midcourt as the clock ticked down, 18….17…16…15. Then with about 10 seconds left he made his move. Ducking inside one defender, sidling past another, weaving his way under the basket…7…6….5, then leaping and arching his back and displaying that incredible ‘hangtime’ that seemed to defy gravity to plop the ball into the basket, followed, almost immediately, by the klaxon that signalled the end the of the match.
I thought of Jordan when watching MS Dhoni win yet another match for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL on Thursday night. He left it late. He usually does. His team needed 46 from the last four overs, two of which were to be bowled by Dale Steyn, the no.1 bowler in the world.
We wondered this time if he had left it too late. But no. Steyn’s first ball was manhandled over deep mid wicket for a big six, and his second, a fast bouncer was deposited over long on for another with an extraordinary forehand smash. Fourteen came off that over. Then he lost the strike. So now it was 28 from 12 balls. Fourteen an over. Steyn again. A yorker was whipped for two to deep square leg, another carved over cover for four, a length ball was clubbed over deep mid wicket for six. Steyn could only stand and admire.
Like Jordan, there is an inevitability in what he is going to do. All who oppose him know exactly what his intentions are. And yet they seem inert, and he is unstoppable, almost invincible, fuelled as he is by the power of positive thought.
If you were looking for an early candidate as sportsman of the 21st century, look no further.