by Adam W Hunter

Cricket fans may be familiar with the story of Fred Tate, and the fourth Ashes Test of 1902 nicknamed ‘Tate’s Test’.

The Sussex bowler was only selected for his debut minutes before play began at a rain-soaked Old Trafford.

He boasted a fine First-Class record and was having the season of his life. It was his 35th birthday.

Tate went wicketless in Australia’s first innings and fumbled a simple catch in the second that allowed them to limp from a disastrous 10-3 to 86 all out.

Then, as last man, he came to the crease with his team eight runs from victory.

He edged his first ball for four but moments later it was all over when he was bowled.

Australia had the win by three runs and a dramatic series triumph. Tate was booed from the field and never played for England again.

Ask the same cricket fans who has the highest Test batting average, and almost all will say Sir Donald Bradman. But technically, they’d be wrong.

Trinidad’s Andy Ganteaume made his Test debut for West Indies against England in Port of Spain in 1948.

He had already scored a hundred against the touring Englishmen and was picked to open the batting for the second Test.

Ganteaume and George Carew built a huge partnership, and Ganteaume was eventually caught at extra-cover after four and a half hours. He had made 112 in what would be his only Test innings.

His captain thought he was selfish, scoring slowly; the eventual rain-affected draw supported his case. Ganteaume said he was trying to give Carew more strike.

Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes – two of the ‘Three Ws’ – had debuted in the first Test; the team was already packed with great batsmen. And there was the politics of cricket in the Caribbean, controlled by white officials to whom Ganteaume would not bow.

On debut alongside Ganteaume was the third ‘W’ – Frank Worrell: the first black West Indies captain who played 51 Tests, a political activist and Jamaican senator knighted in 1964, and upon his death in 1967 the first sportsman to be honoured at Westminster Abbey.

Ganteaume had not been allowed to bat in the second innings.

Cricket’s narrative is one of individual moments, each ball an event. It is a stretch to claim that Tate would have had a long Test career had he been applauded from the field, or that Ganteaume would have rivalled Worrell given a second chance.

But their tales highlight the limitations of the stories we create when consumed by sporting contest, allowing single events to paint an exciting but simple picture.

Powerful people, hard work and luck interact in every moment, not only the ones that seem to define the winner, yet these crown for us our heroes and condemn our villains.

Like cricket, athletics is composed of intense, discreet events. Remember when Jessica Ennis entered the Olympic Stadium to compete at London 2012.

The pressure on Ennis as the face of the games and gold medal favourite must have been almost unbearable. Not only did she win the first event, the 100 metres hurdles, but her time was the fastest ever in heptathlon and a British record.

Think of Elton Flatley, the Australian whose penalty against England sent the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final into extra time.

That the kick was relatively simple and to avoid defeat rather than secure glorious victory made the moment even more tense.

Full-back Clement Poitrenaud ought to be remembered for his trophy-rich 16-year career with Toulouse and France, not the ‘biggest howler in rugby history’ in the 2004 European Cup Final after Toulouse had blown a lead.

Poitrenaud dithered on the try line, and Rob Howley pounced for Wasps. Even Toulouse coach Guy Novès asked: “How do you explain what Poitrenaud did?”

And think of the hockey final between Great Britain and the Netherlands at the 2016 Olympics. GB goalkeeper Maddie Hinch’s string of saves took the match to a shoot-out, and she became a national icon stopping every Dutch penalty. #HinchForPM was trending on social media.

The list could go on almost endlessly. Chris Eubank’s uppercut to turn the tide against Michael Watson. Football’s magic goals, and the disasters at the other end goalkeepers wish to forget.

Contrast Tiger’s chip on the 16th at Augusta in 2005 – the genius that, ultimately, saved the championship – with Jean van de Velde paddling around at Carnoustie in 1999 having blown it.

The fan wants to leave it there, but the scientist simply can’t. We need to study the background.

These moments speak to that need to idolise heroes and vilify losers, and the difficulty of seeing the full complex picture of a sporting contest.

Psychologists offer many explanations: an infantile appreciation for the superhuman and our own deficiencies, our aspiration for perfection, and the sense of justice and validation the moments bring. Perhaps we are experiencing the ‘iceberg illusion’ described by psychologist Anders Ericsson, attributing feats of brilliance to talent beyond our grasp rather than years of deliberate practice, teamwork and fortune. Then there is the sheer entertainment: the thrill, hope and despair.

In their 2013 book The Numbers Game – why everything you know about football is wrong, statisticians Chris Anderson and David Sally examine myths and misconceptions in the ‘beautiful game’.

An instructive passage – ‘Dogs that don’t bark’ – discusses the limitations of statistics: measuring events in sport.

In 2001, Alex Ferguson sold defender Jaap Stam to Lazio, partly because Stam was tackling less. Stam continued to win trophies until he retired in 2007. Anderson and Sally argue that he had such good positioning and anticipation that his opponents never saw the ball. He tackled less simply because he didn’t have to; he was better than the stats. There weren’t the big moments.

And there is the story of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane and assistant Paul DePodesta, told by Michael Lewis in his 2004 book Moneyball.

They felt baseball teams were overpaying for certain players and set about finding bargains.

In three years they paid salaries worth $500,000 per win, compared to $3 million per win paid by the Texas Rangers.

They found the dogs that were not barking and, importantly, the elements of pure luck they could ignore, looking behind the heroes and villains for the real story.

We saw a few seconds of athletic perfection from Ennis. We lost our nerve as an almost robot-like Flatley held his.

School rugby players wondered why Poitrenaud didn’t just touch the ball down. And when Hinch saved the fourth penalty in a row, we imagined she must have been possessed by unbeatable form.

We don’t see years of training and rituals that deliver an athlete as a picture of concentration. Or the tiny margins along the way: missed kicks and squandered leads; positioning and anticipation; rain and subjective umpiring; scrambled equalisers and Hinch’s little black book of notes on her opposition. The mystery and drama of the big moment is what we want.

This brings us back to Tate and Ganteaume, and the narratives we create. Perhaps if the rain hadn’t come and West Indies had won, all would have been forgiven and Ganteaume might have had a successful Test career.

And naming the 1902 Test match after one unfortunate participant ignores the batsmen who failed to score decisive runs, and brilliant Australian fielding on the final day. History doesn’t give these a second glance. It always comes down to that one event.

Tate’s First-Class record is spectacular, spanning seventeen years with 1,331 wickets and 234 catches. Later that summer, he scored 22 for Sussex against Australia in an uneventful tour match.

But, when his moment came, he dropped the catch and was bowled for four.

That’s why we watch.