'Many of us are such hopeless romantics or, by another name, sports fans'

Happy return: Niki Lauda holds aloft the British Grand Prix trophy on his way to the world title in 1982 after a comeback from a terrible crash. Photograph: Getty


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Addled by a lack of sleep from watching England's crushing win in the Second Ashes Test, for much of the past week cricket fans have been consumed with a contemplation of Shane Warne's possible return to Test cricket. These days, he's as much a poker entrepreneur as a former spin doctor par excellence, and one look at the portly 41-year-old's side-profile is enough to convince all but the most hopeless romantics that it is sheer folly for him to have contemplated such a potentially embarrassing return to the fray.

Unfortunately, many of us are just such hopeless romantics – or, called by another name, sports fans – that we willed it to happen. As the speculation mounted all week, we regaled ourselves with tales of unlikely comebacks until we were convinced that all Warnie had to do was click his fingers and he'd be able to skittle out the whole of the England batting line-up. Hell, he might even be able to chip in with a few runs too.

So here, without further ado, are a dozen of the great sporting comebacks which had us convinced that the Second Coming was not only upon us, but was actually a good thing:

Lance Armstrong: In 2005, having overcome testicular cancer to win seven consecutive Tours de France, the controversial Texan retired from cycling, saying that if anyone saw him anywhere near a bike they had his permission to shoot him. Instead, incensed by the virtually open accusations that his success was as a result of performance-enhancing drugs, he came back and finished third in the Tour.

Niki Lauda: Possibly the most remarkable comeback of all. On course to retain his world championship in 1976, the Ferrari F1 driver suffered horrific third-degree burns and inhaled toxic gases during a spectacular smash at the Nurburgring, and was on the critical list for almost a week. However, not only did he go on to return to F1 within six weeks, he won his next championship in 1977. However, the Austrian also came back a second time in 1982 after two years of running his own airline, and went on to win a last championship with McLaren in 1984.

Bert Trautmann: The German soldier turned goalkeeper was a firm favourite with Manchester City fans, but his bravery almost got him killed in the 1956 FA Cup final when he dived at the feet of Birmingham striker Peter Murphy and was kicked in the ensuing goalmouth scramble. As no subs were allowed, Trautmann played on, making several spectacular saves as City won 3-1. It was later discovered that he had played with a broken neck, with five dislocated and two cracked vertebrae. Trautmann played on until 1964 and made 545 appearances for City.

George Foreman: After a near-death experience in the ring after a gruelling fight against Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico, George Foreman quit the ring in 1977 to become a minister. However, in 1988 the 38-year-old Punchin' Preacher said God had told him to return to the pugilistic arts. Not that the Lord saw fit to allow him to beat Evander Holyfield or Tommy Morrison but, in 1994, aged 45 and at the third time of asking, he knocked out Michael Moorer to become the oldest world champion of all time.

Craig Parnham: England's hockey captain almost died on the pitch in Malaysia when a hockey stick flew through the air and shattered his larynx, leaving him unable to breathe. Only a mad dash to the local hospital, followed by an airlift back to Britain for emergency surgery in which his larynx was rebuilt using skin from his thigh, saved his life. Yet, within the year, Parnham was back captaining England.

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Martina Navratilova: Having dominated women's tennis, Navratilova retired in 1996 but after four years away from the sport her yearning for the court got the better of her and in 2000 she returned to play mixed doubles with Indian Leander Paes, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon at the age of 46, making her the oldest Grand Slam champion ever. She then won the US Open mixed doubles with Bob Bryan in 2006 before retiring for good a month short of her 50th birthday.

Michael Jordan: Undoubtedly the most successful sporting comeback of all time. Having achieved all he could in basketball with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan quit in 1993, partly out of boredom, partly because he wanted to pursue a career in baseball. But, after three frustrating and unsuccessful years with a Minor League team affiliated to the Chicago White Sox, he returned to the Bulls at the age of 32, and proved to be as dominant a figure as he was before he retired, almost single-handedly propelling the Bulls to another three titles.

Clint Malarchuk: In 1989 in ice hockey's NHL, the Buffalo Sabers goaltender's throat was sliced open by the skate of St Louis Blues attacker Steve Tuttle, who had gone airborne after a hefty tackle from Malarchuk's team-mate Uwe Krupp. An eighth of an inch higher, and Malarchuk would have died; as it was blood literally pumped on to the ice from the worst wound in NHL history, causing three team-mates to vomit on the ice, nine spectators to faint and two to have heart attacks. Yet, after just one night in hospital, Malarchuck was back in goal against the Quebec Nordiques the following week.

Lester Piggott: After 4,000 wins and 11 champion jockey titles in a stellar career, Piggott retired in 1985 to train horses only to be imprisoned two years later for tax fraud. On his release, with no money and effectively unable to work as a trainer, he got back in the saddle in 1990 at the age of 55. Ten days after starting his comeback he won the Breeders Cup Mile on Royal Academy in spectacular fashion, and then went on to ride another classic winner, Rodrigo de Triano in the 2000 Guineas in 2000. His last winner was in 1994 before he retired in his 60th year in 1995.

Monica Seles: When an obsessive Steffi Graf fan burst into the court in Hamburg in 1993 and plunged a knife into Monica Seles' back in front of 6,000 fans as she was beating Magdalena Maleeva 6-4 4-3, the Serbian was effectively retired from tennis. Having won eight Grand Slam titles in the previous three years, she was psychologically unable to play again. However, when she eventually returned two years later, she proved herself a formidable competitor, beating Anke Huber in the final of the 1996 Australian Open. Indeed, women's tennis is the most comeback-rich of all sports, with teenage druggie Jennifer Capriati and Dutch mother Kim Clijsters also worthy of a mention in dispatches.

Jason Robinson/Mark Regan/Lawrence Dallaglio: The three England 2003 World Cup winners were all happily retired from international rugby when they were coaxed out of retirement by England coach Brian Ashton for a tilt at the 2007 World Cup. Against all the odds, England's superannuated Dad's Army reached the final, only to be edged out by South Africa.

Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean: The ice-dancing couple who did so much to bolster sales of Ravel's Bolero after their faultless gold-medal winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics, had been retired for eight years when they put their careers as ice dancers in Sleeping Beauty on Ice on hold and competed at the 1994 Olympics. Aged 35 and 36, they were given no chance by the pundits and fellow competitors, but went on to win the bronze medal.