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.