Andrew Flintoff celebrates a wicket

Carpe diem: Andrew Flintoff stood up when it counted for a country starved of an Ashes victory for over 18 years

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The gift of timing

All very good performers come alive on the biggest stages; the very great ones find their very best at those times

Simon Barnes

The difference between being very good at sport and being one of the greats is measured in time. But you can measure time in two quite separate ways. One way is to demonstrate the qualities of excellence time and time again, season after season, year after year, amassing the kind of numbers no one can argue with.

The other way is to be excellent at the right moment. At a time not of your choosing but of theirs. It's about getting it right in the one special Now. Rising to the very biggest of big occasions.

Let's compare and contrast two great performers. Sachin Tendulkar demonstrated his greatness over the course of a quarter-century and scored a hundred international hundreds, besides putting together so many stats that any reservations anyone may have about his career are beside the point.

Bob Beamon achieved greatness in the space of about three seconds. Beamon, lest you forget, was the long jumper who won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He jumped 29ft 2.5in (8.90 metres), beating the world record by 21.75in (55cm), and it stood for 22 years. It was perhaps the greatest three seconds in the history of sport.

You can argue for ever about who is the greater, Sachin or Flying Bob. But no matter which side you take, you have to accept that both are great. They just achieved greatness on different timescales.

Beamon is unforgettable because he did the impossible thing at the Olympic Games: right at the moment when the whole world was watching. You get a chance like that once every four years: for many, if not most, that works out to one chance in a lifetime. That's what gives the Olympic Games their very considerable fascination: they only come along every four years and you're either ready or you're a trivia question. Beamon never jumped over 27 feet again in his life. It was all about that one perfect moment.

Some people have what you might call the opposite of nerves. That is to say, the tensions of a great occasion don't lock them up, they free them

During the summer of 2009 I had an argument in print with Mike Atherton, former England captain. I said that Andrew Flintoff was a great cricketer. He said no, he wasn't; he didn't pass the test of longevity. Flintoff was no Sachin. And I agreed. How could I not?

But I counter-argued that Flintoff was great for six weeks, and that is enough because they were the six weeks that really mattered in his sporting life. They came in the summer of 2005: the summer of a lifetime. It was the summer in which England beat Australia in a Test series and won back the Ashes after 18 years of humiliation. The difference between the two sides was Flintoff.

Flintoff was great in the Beamonesque sense of the term: in the sense of identifying the great occasion, homing in on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, seizing it and making it his own. And that is the challenge facing cricketers in the World Cup.

It's one thing to make great collections of runs and wickets in the one-day internationals that take place again and again across the year, generally arriving in batches in the manner of the 49 bus. It's quite another to score a century or take a five-for in the final of the World Cup. Some can do both: some can do one and not the other. Most do neither.

There have been many better footballers than Geoff Hurst. Better in the Sachin sense, that is. Jimmy Greaves was a much better forward than Hurst, but he picked up an injury and failed to reclaim his place during England's campaign in the 1966 World Cup: and he was never the same man again. It still doesn't stack up. If you picked your all-time team of greats, Hurst wouldn't make the subs' bench, though Greaves might.

Clockwise from top left: Bob Beamon's world-record jump in 1968; Geoff Hurst, the hero on the greatest day in England's football history; Kelly Holmes with her two gold medals in 2004; Sebastian Coe sealing the 1500m gold in Moscow, 1980

Clockwise from top left: Bob Beamon's world-record jump in 1968; Geoff Hurst, the hero on the greatest day in England's football history; Kelly Holmes with her two gold medals in 2004; Sebastian Coe sealing the 1500m gold in Moscow, 1980 © Getty Images

But the fact remains that Hurst is the only footballer to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. He did so on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion (at any rate by English people) when England won the thing. Hurst wasn't great in the way that Pele was: but he was great on the one day that really mattered. Pele has cause to envy very few people in sport, but those three goals - three goals on that very particular day - might give him pause for a moment's regret.

There are some very particular requirements for the task of turning in a great performance on a very particular day. The first, of course, is good luck. You need to be injury-free for your preparation as well as for the great day itself. Part of this is about good preparation, but an awful lot really is just dumb luck. Every Olympic Games, every great sporting occasion, you will find someone who was a groin strain away from taking part: maybe just an ache and a limp away from greatness.

Kelly Holmes, the British runner, had notoriously dreadful luck with injuries. In fact, there was only one time in her life when she managed to arrive fully fit at a major championship, and by this time she was already 34. This was at the Athens Olympic Games of 2004. And she won - to her blatant disbelief - two gold medals. Greatness can sometimes be found in waiting, training, hoping, wishing: just hanging in there in the belief that your moment will come.

But the luck of reaching the start in good shape is only the first step. The people who put out their very best performances on the very biggest of stages have a certain special and unrecognised talent. There isn't a word for it. They do so because they are the moment-seizers, the occasion-risers, the people who ask themselves: if not now, when? And find that question the most potent stimulus in the universe.

For some very great performers, the more intimidating the circumstances, the better they perform. That the stakes are almost unfairly high is what prompts them to find the best of themselves

Some people find that great occasions inhibit their abilities. Their muscles freeze, and worse, so does their brain. In 1980, Sebastian Coe, the British runner, had a meltdown in the 800 metres final, the one he was supposed to win. He ran like a fool, and admits it. But being a seriously tough bastard, he was able to put that right by winning the 1500 metres a few days later. So he proved himself both a scared bunny and one of the great if-not-now-wheners of all time.

For performers - some very great performers - the more intimidating the circumstances, the better they perform. The fact that people are watching in billions, that the words that will be written about them will be as many as there are stars in the universe, that the stakes are almost unfairly high, is what prompts them to find the best of themselves.

I recall Joe Montana striding into the huddle in the Super Bowl of 1989 when his team, the San Francisco 49ers, were losing. There were only three minutes left and 92 yards - more or less the entire length of the field - to go. It was then that Montana defined himself and for that matter his sport by leading the 49ers up the field in a series of utterly decisive plays that brought as dramatic a victory as you could wish to see in any form of sport.

The great occasions are about nerve, but nerve is not to be considered a negative thing. It's not the case that people play less well than they might because they get nervous, while other people get less nervous and so play better. That's not what sport is like. Sir Matthew Pinsent, Olympic oarsman and four times a gold-medal winner, used to throw up over the side of a boat before an Olympic final. He won four of the damn things.

Big day, big feats: Aravinda de Silva was relaxed enough to contribute match-winning efforts with bat and ball in the 1996 World Cup final

Big day, big feats: Aravinda de Silva was relaxed enough to contribute match-winning efforts with bat and ball in the 1996 World Cup final © Getty Images

No: some people have what you might call the opposite of nerves. That is to say, the tensions of a great occasion don't lock them up, they free them. In the crushing - if artificial - tensions of sport at the biggest possible occasions, some athletes find the greatest inspiration of their lives.

All very good performers in sport have this to some extent: that's why they're performers; the audience is what brings them alive. But the very great ones - those who are great in the Beamon sense - find their very best at the biggest, highest and rarest of occasions. Occasions like the World Cup final.

So Zaheer Khan and MS Dhoni were the great occasion-seekers in the World Cup final of 2011. Four years earlier it was Adam Gilchrist. Perhaps my favourite performance in a World Cup final is Aravinda de Silva, the only man to score a century and take three or more wickets in a World Cup final - though the mad, intense leadership of Kapil Dev in the 1983 final was something to see, even if his performance doesn't show up in the stats.

The one certainty is that when the final comes, someone will rise to it: seize it, leave his mark, make it his own. And that's one of the most thrilling things in all sport.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

 

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