Happy to be upset
There are two ways of looking at an upset. You can take a mischievous joy in it: revelling in the way the traditional order is set on its head and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Or you can find it profoundly distressing: as if the safe world you live in had lost its senses.
There was a sigh of relief as Ireland beat West Indies in the World Cup last week - as if we had a proper World Cup on our hands at last. As a result, there was right and proper trepidation as the perfectly dreadful England team prepared to face Scotland, though England were efficient enough when it came to the put-to. Sri Lanka flirted with an upset against Afghanistan - at one point they were 51 for 4 - but got away with it.
As the competition advances we will get more upsets: to be greeted with horror, with mischievous delight, with there-but-for-the-grace-of-God admiration, and with all the schadenfreude that sport makes possible.
Perhaps the pleasure of the upset lies in self-identification. I was at Lord's as a paying punter for the final of the World Cup in 1983 and went prepared to cheer - admittedly without much hope - for the underdog. India faced West Indies, who had won the first two World Cups and were the hottest of favourites to add a third that day.
I was cheering for India because we are all of us underdogs, even the most privileged: all of us facing a vast and complex world on our own. The odds have been stacked against us all: we are all struggling to overcome the disadvantages life heaps on us. A blow against the established order feels almost like a personal favour.
As the competition advances we will get more upsets: to be greeted with horror, with mischievous delight and with all the schadenfreude that sport makes possible
Every small triumph in our own lives feels like a freakish bit of luck, something we've done little to deserve. It's as if the capricious gods of fate were in a good mood for once: not because you earned it but because you just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I remember the insane way that 1983 game shifted. Certainly if India had batted better they'd have lost. West Indies treated their total of 183 with contempt, and in doing so they fell apart to some nagging but hardly devastating bowling. "Not a winning total," the Indian captain Kapil Dev had told the team before they went out to defend it. "A fighting total."
Upsets are part of sport, but some sporting formats are more upset-prone than others. A Test match will normally sort out the stronger from the weaker team without room for argument; a Test series almost always does. Over sufficient time, superiority becomes unavoidable.
Thus T20 matches bring more upsets than ODIs, and ODIs bring more upsets than Test matches. Over time superior resources make themselves felt while bad luck and dodgy decisions even themselves out.
Some sports bring more upsets than others. American sports tend to resist the upset. Perhaps that's why Americans chose them. Certainly America tends not to greet underdog victories with the same relish as the rest of us - though they still rejoice in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, when the USA ice hockey team, made up of college players, beat the full-time pros of the USSR in an event recalled as the "miracle on ice".
But American football and basketball tend to follow form more often than not. Baseball can be more uncertain, and that's no doubt why they play the World Series over seven games, ensuring that the better team, not the luckier team, will win.
Football - as in soccer - is the great upset game. In any one match, any team can beat any other team. That's because the value of the currency in football is uniquely high. A goal is comparatively rare thing in football, compared to a run or even a wicket in cricket.
Over a full season, the best team tends to become champion: but football has always had a special fancy for knockout competitions.
The FA Cup competition is custom-built to maximise the possibility of the upset. One event, one moment of inspiration, one blunder, one referee's decision can change everything - which explains why football managers are always whinging about referees. You get upsets every week in football (last Saturday, Burnley got a draw at Chelsea, while Swansea beat Manchester United) but the league table at the end of the season will reveal the strongest team.
In all sports, every match, every race, can end in upset. In the 1967 Grand National, a 100-to-1 shot called Foinavon was hammering along manfully miles behind the leaders when they all fell. Foinavon picked his way through the wreckage to score one of the greatest upset victories in the history of sport.
James Joyce's great novel Ulysses is packed with references to the Ascot Gold Cup of 1904, won by the dark horse Throwaway; and the whole book is about the triumph of the underdog, the dark horse who emerges triumphant in a difficult and troubled world. In other words, the underdog is the one of the great archetypes of human life.
So at this World Cup there will continue to be upsets. I was in Nairobi when Kenya beat Sri Lanka in 2003, which was something of a collector's item, but I missed the series of upsets that took Sri Lanka to the 1996 World Cup final against Australia, when Australia managed to nullify Sri Lanka's not-so-secret weapon, Sanath Jayasuriya, and still lost.
The endless and clumsy format of the current tournament does all it can to prevent the lesser teams from reaching the knockout stages. After all, it's a bit much to ask Ireland to be lucky six times over, or even three. But such things can happen, as Kenya will tell you: in 2003 they reached the semi-finals, riding a series of freakish events to get there.
That's the cry as the World Cup begins to rock and roll. In a tournament that is over-long and with far too many matches, the eternal possibility of the upset adds all the spice.