April 6, 2014

The problem with belief

In a recent piece that focuses on the weight given to a sports person's temperament by commentators, Ed Smith -- yes, that most wonderfully articulate and most logically persuasive of cricket writers -- accentuates the need for "more scepticism when it comes to pronouncing judgment on a player's mind." And following South Africa's defeat to India yesterday my friend (Siddhartha) and I were talking this morning about the Proteas' fall at another major hurdle in yet another major ICC tournament. During the conversation, the question of the South African cricket team's belief -- that is, its apparent lack thereof -- came up.

Two related questions followed the question of belief. Can on-field performance reflect self-belief , or, in the case of team sports, the belief of a group of individuals in a collective cause i.e. the team's triumph? If the answer to the first question is yes, then to what extent is that reflection of belief in performance accurate? A problem is immediately apparent: 

If one possesses reasonable knowledge about a team and uses its established confidence (or diffidence) as the point of departure, the team's performances can in some way be  thought of as following from, among other things, its system of beliefs. On the contrary, if performance is used retrospectively as a portal into a team's inner workings, one is at best left with conflicting guesses, which do not seem easily verifiable or reconcilable. The application of the ghastly/absurd ("cross out one of the words based on your allegiance") c-tag to describe the South African short-format teams of the past two decades is, in its way, a concerted attempt at deducing a team's psychological moorings from its outward show; or, which is worse, reducing the former to the latter. 

Such deductions are also simplistic from a factual point of view. While espirit de corps, closely allied to a team's sense of collective belief , can translate into phenomenal performances on the field, as dramatically highlighted by Australia's recent Ashes-winning team coached by the beer-laden effervescence of Darren Lehmann, it can just as quickly go wrong as a resurgent Team India found out on tailor-made dust bowls in the home Test series against England in 2012. South Africa's own Test teams have occupied the unenviable strategic territory between the clinical and the ruthless in recent times - their recent Test series loss to Australia was their first series loss in years - so it is difficult to contend that there is a lack of belief that strangles South African cricket teams in general. Nor can a lack of belief be said to suffocate just the short-format teams because, unlike England, Australia and to some extent India, South Africa did not, till recently, field very different teams in different formats. Besides, inspiration - or to use the antiseptic term, 'momentum' - does count for something in sport, so it is likely that the successes of the South African Test team only spurs the other South African cricket teams to perform better. 

The prolonged hoodoo at critical periods of important ICC events is, however, unarguable as facts generally are, and one wonders why. My own explanation for it is that the South Africans get so keen beyond a point in these events that they start playing - into - the context too much, rather than just the next delivery (easier said, I know). It is in fact well-known that obsessive attention towards something can hamper performance just as much as scatterbrained focus does. Sachin Tendulkar's reported (non-)pursuit of his hundredth international hundred offers a remarkable and recent case in point. The milestone must have affected him in some way as the eventual struggle to get there against a middling team hinted. Compare, now, this undoubted master's struggle with masterful innings played - by him and others - on the ground, but also, simultaneously, in the 'zone': a fuzzily-defined (if not ill-defined) psychological space where a batsman is alone but not lonely; is focused but relaxed; unconsciously trusts his muscle memory, honed by years of experience and training, to respond appropriately to whatever is bowled to him; and attacks and defends clearly but without any conspicuous statement of intent. 

My hunch is that teams can be in the zone too, like India were reportedly in the latter half of the World Cup 2011, or the Australian teams of the last decade seemed to be almost all the time. Perhaps, the South African team's zone crumbles in front of the urge to make history when they start staring at the trophy of a major tournament. What deters them most therefore is that they want the prize too badly; not that they are somehow scared of it as normally assumed. This jinx is bound to end, however, like all jinxes do. When it does, I will not be surprised to learn that relaxing, rather than tightening up, helped; that letting go turned the tide. 

February 19, 2014

On batting rearguards

Written on February 17, 2014. 

There is something about batting rearguards that justifies the 'Test' in Test cricket. Never mind that cricket is a lopsidedly batsman-friendly game these days (minus, thanks be to, Mitch Johnson and Dale Steyn), never mind that grounds are becoming smaller as boundaries are brought in closer and never mind the quality of the opposition's bowling attack; for to bat is to face up to the six (or seven) possible dismissals possible every delivery: that is 1080 possible dismissals in a 30-over session  and 3240 in a day. While numbers in general reduce the spirit of sporting feats to the perfectly ground grey sheen of history, the numbers a batsman keeps at bay as he tries to remain undefeated foreground the (routinely) monumental nature of his task.

As much as the numbers a batsman generates with the bat, it is the numbers he does not generate that puts him at the forefront of all Test cricket, in my opinion. No wonder we old-fashioned aficionados of the game love the guy who can carry his bat, the bloke in the lower middle-order who can defend like his life depended on it, or the frail-looking tail-ender who is still game for a bloody good scrap: it is a romance that fetes the almost physical will of bloody-mindedness (over and) against the inexorably boring press of brain-generated odds. As fans of this glorious game of essentially slow rhythms and subtle music that is an acquired taste - (what can football fans who mock us possibly know about lengthening shadows as a tired fast bowler runs into bowl to a batsman on 94*?) - we may embrace the fast food excitement of an IPL night, the high-strung nationalistic passions triggered by a T20 international, the creativity and genius unveiled in a one-day seven-for or double-hundred and a team's collective stamina revealed in a World Cup triumph. However, what we find most delicious is the anxiety and suspense generated by a batsman (or two batsmen), as he walks to square leg or does some gardening on the pitch, before resuming his battle with eleven players, the field placements, the weather, the pitch, the overall context of the game, his own body and mind and, from to time, the very expectant or very hostile ground. To bat, therefore, is to be blind to everything but the next delivery, just as to live is to not think too much.

Watching McCullum (281*) negotiate every next ball over the last five sessions, I am sure that New Zealand fans and keen-eyed neutrals have experienced at least some nervously knotty moments in their tummy. While I have not seen a ball of the Kiwi skipper's knock, which indeed inspired this post, news of it made me reminisce about other back-from-behind batting masterpieces which have become legends in my memory. Topping that very personal list of mine are two innings played under vastly different conditions, contrasting in style and substance (of runs and outcomes), but united by a sense of context. Laxman's 281 at Kolkata 2001, as almost every Indian cricket fan knows, denied Steve Waugh his final frontier and heralded an all-time great Test series and, later, a fascinating rivalry for the rest of the decade. While I cannot pick out one standout stroke from Laxman's innings - a difficulty writers tend to experience while trying to describe any Very Very Special canvas - I remember its (apparently) relentless elegance belying the steel of the wrists (and heart) that worked it, as it took the game out well beyond the follow-on context within which it was wrought, and took it beyond Australia's reach.

Six years before Laxman performed his fluent Houdini act in Dravid's gritty and generously perspiring company in the coming heat of a March day at the Eden Gardens, Michael Atherton, who also preferred grit over grace but displayed both on his day, had defied Donald, Pollock and Brian McMillan at the aptly-nicknamed 'Bull Ring (which would turn out to be the locale of Dravid's own maiden hundred) before returning to the dressing room, 185-starred. While Athers' tour de force did not help England reach the target of 479 that the Proteas had set for them, it saved England the Test.  Atherton himself, having opened the batting, had batted for thirty seven minutes shy of two days and had faced 492 deliveries in producing a modern-day classic of sound defence (and very Kipling-esque stoicism). I did not watch a single ball of the innings - and have not found any video footage of it - and so, with the dramatising powers of imagination, it grows ever more fascinating in my estimation.  

Having mentioned a knock I watched live and another that was played during my time, I must now mention what in my opinion is the greatest rearguard of all: Hanif Mohammad's 337*, the sort of innings that can inspire in a young child, as it did in me, a slightly unhealthy obsession towards Test cricket (and an even more insane aptitude to draw parallels between that and life especially when the chips are down). The innings, as cricinfo informs, came late in the 1950s against a West Indies side that included the likes of Sir Garry Sobers, Alf Valentine and Roy Fredricks, at Kensington Oval in Barbados. Before being asked to follow-on, Pakistan had replied to West Indies' 579 with 106 (all out). Opening the batting in the second dig as in the first, Hanif Mohammad batted for thirty minutes shy of a thousand and saved the Test, easy peasy (as the Iron Man would say). No innings known to me can better describe a recently popular, if paradoxical take, on cricket: "that it is a team game played by individuals."

Neither Hanif Mohammad, nor V.V.S Laxman, nor Michael Atherton came close to matching their (respectively) match-saving, match-winning and match-drawing rearguard efforts during the rest of their careers: no sir!, not in terms of runs, deliveries faced, or hours battled. On triple hundreds, the late Peter Roebuck memorably wrote that "it is the work of a lifetime expressed in a single innings." Perhaps, one could say the same about a rearguard, as evidenced by the fact that there are not many batsman with more than one triple-hundred (Lara, Gayle, Bradman and Sehwag excepted) or one backs-to-the-wall opus (Faf Du Plessis, take a bow) to their credit. Perhaps, a definitive peak betokens a clear descent. Be that as it may, Brendon 'Baz' McCullum has the great chance of turning a rare rearguard into a rarer third innings triple hundred as the final day gets underway at Wellington. Rest assured, I shall cheer for him; and so, I am sure, will Martin Crowe, who missed the feat by a run at New Zealand's capital city against Sri Lanka, and who has waited twenty-three years to see a New Zealand batsman register his name in the illustrious 300 club.