As an England supporter, failure at major tournaments has become comfortingly predictable. Hope becomes expectation becomes disappointment. It's a pattern gleefully welcomed by those commentators and analysts tasked with writing about sport. 'England choked' is as familiar a headline as you can get when following a major tournament. The latest team to get this treatment is the England cricket team, who yesterday crashed out in the semi-finals of their own Champions trophy. Let the recriminations begin. But actually, they didn't choke at all, and the reason we think they did shines a light on why this is such a popular sporting narrative.
There's a brilliant clip from former NFL coach Dennis Green, who when asked about his opponents, goes on a rant saying 'they are who we thought they were.' Can't the same be said about England? Their form has improved but outside T20 success in 2010 they haven't won a major tournament for decades. They are ranked number four in the world, so isn't defeat in the semi-finals really what we should have expected? Yet England fans were conditioned going into the tournament that they were favourites. The collective hype machine of media, brands and social media pundits creates a false narrative, and when it doesn't happen, gets to create a whole new one about the team choking. Sometimes, teams just are who they should be.
If you wanted to argue England would over-perform their ranking so dramatically, your best chance was home advantage. It is certainly not unprecedented for teams to lift themselves when at home for a major tournament, but the record is inconsistent. The England rugby team underperformed dramatically at the RWC in 2015. But on the other hand the London Olympics saw Team GB lift themselves beyond all expectations. These are just two examples, and the variety of factors involved makes it a hopelessly small sample size, but it's fair to say that the record of home advantage is spotty at best. The England captain Eoin Morgan himself came out after defeat and said there was a very limited home advantage for England in their final game, and you can see his point. Playing in Cardiff, on a pitch they didn't control (normally the main driver behind home advantage in cricket) and with a huge number of Pakistan fans in the crowd, it's hard to claim England had much of a loaded hand. But these were nuances not compatible with the 'England at home should be favourites' narrative, and so didn't slow down the home team hype train.
Narratives in sport are all about making the game emotional. It suits broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors and promoters because emotional hooks bring fans closer to the game, more likely to watch, talk about and buy. But many would argue sport isn't emotional but rational. Read anything by the excellent statistician Nate Silver and you can see that behind seemingly unpredictable events are statistics that explain it. The England cricket team has embraced a more aggressive style with the bat in the last few years, which means they inherently take more risks. Spread across a team with lots of batting this risk is mitigated, if one or even two batsmen fail there are four more who will pick up the slack. But there is one time in 10 or 20 or 30 that all of these risks fail to pay off at once, and when they do, the team will desperately underperform like they did against Pakistan. England just aren't that good that we should expect their gamble to pay off every time. If you look at the dismissals of the England batsmen, they weren't snared on the defensive by Pakistani spinners like they would have been in previous years, they were attacking their seamers. Eoin Morgan's dismissal, caught behind chasing a wide one, illustrates the point. Over the last few years he probably hits it for four or misses it 95% percent of the time. But if everyone has their 5% moment in the same game, the team collapses. It isn't an emotional 'choking' moment but a statistical expression of the risk England have taken. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The way we consume sport, like all parts of our culture, is to put it in nice easy-to-understand boxes. We jump on these sporting narratives because they help us understand a complex set of circumstances and seem to make an unpredictable tournament seem more predictable. These narratives are continued by brands, media and rights holders because they successfully bring people closer to the game, but they don't necessarily speak to what is really going on. To truly judge England at major tournaments, the skill is getting behind the headline, and finding the complicated reasons, not the simple ones.