Cricket: a game played in the mind as much as on the pitch
Watching England flop against Australia whether in an ODI or in a Test match always feels like it’s the same every time. It always feels like it is a failure of mentality rather than technique, because while psychology plays a part in every sport you care to name, in cricket it is more extant than in any other.
In part this is because it is an individualistic sport played out in a team context which is quite unlike any other sort of game. Cricket is a team sport played as a series of individual contests. It is a one-on-one battle in the way a tennis match is but unlike tennis, the consequences of your actions have implications for the rest of the team. This effectively doubles the stress. You’ve got to win your personal battle with the bat or ball, and that’s stressful enough. You want to do well for yourself. Indeed, even if the team loses but you play well, you will be vaunted for it and will be excused some of the criticism. So there’s that pressure. But on top of that, if you fail, you will be failing not just yourself but your teammates.
So it’s no surprise that to be any good on a consistent basis you have to get your brain right and if you haven’t, you’re doomed to fail.
I know this all too well. When I played for the school usually coming in at five or six, I always felt the pressure of being at the fulcrum of the innings. After me, there was perhaps only one half decent batter, then we were down amongst the boondocks with the boys who just closed their eyes and wafted the bat around hoping it would connect.
If we’d already racked up a good score, this pressure was totally relieved and I could relax and play my game knowing it wasn’t vital I do well. But if I came in and we were 30 for 5 then the pressure was intense. The voice in my head would just be so fixated on not getting out that it almost paralysed me and I’d end up leaving any ball that wasn’t at the stumps, taking a ‘do nothing’ approach so as to not make a mistake and get out.
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We were playing some sort of inter-school cup limited overs competition final. We bowled them out for 119, which was a decent effort but we’d lost four wickets for less than 30 as I came to the wicket, nervous as a kitten. So nervous in fact that I attempted that bat twirl that you’d see the likes of Ian Botham do as he strode to the wicket. It doesn’t look that hard. But my attempt to look nonchalant and cool was destroyed when I dropped the bloody thing onto my foot, from there it somehow lodged between my legs and very effectively tripping me up, sending me stumbling forward. I was the cricketing equivalent of a clown car arriving on the scene only to totally fall apart.
It had been the last ball of the over so I was on the non-striking end. My fellow batter scored two off the first ball, missed the second and was bowled by the third. Next man in lofted one to cover and was caught out second ball. This brought our number eight in, a lad in whose nickname was Thrasher and for good reason. He might get you 50 quick runs or he might be out first ball. Today he was out first ball. Bugger. We were now seven down for not many and chasing a total that now seemed impossibly high. I was the last man who could bat with any degree of consistency so it was down to me to save the day. No pressure then.
So as my first ball came down, I was already self-conscious and nervous. It was down to me to get some runs as quickly but as safely as possible but that put me in two minds. Did I try and whack it around or should I play judiciously and wait for the right ball to hit, knowing I had to stay in as long as possible? But the last thing you want is to be in this sort of dilemma as the bowler is arriving at the crease.
He delivered one at pace that flew past the off stump, nearly bowling me. I’d let it through in fear of doing anything else. As he walked back to his mark I admonished myself for being such a wuss. I can still vividly recall telling myself to “just f**king hit it” over and over as he ran in. Down it came, full length wide of off stump. I launched myself at it like I was trying to kill a bear with the willow, missing it so successfully that I wasn’t in any danger of getting a nick to slips. Next ball was short. I made to thrash it over square leg, missed the sodding thing again and it hit me on the top of my arm. The following delivery went exactly the same, the fifth and sixth were both well wide of the off stump, I swiped and missed at one and gave up on even trying to hit the sixth. I’d faced an over and had not even put wood on the cork.
The pressure was now intense, or I felt it was. I walked up to my fellow batsmen, a bowler who was playing his first game and looked even more scared than I felt, and told him to try and nick a single to give me the strike. Anyway, he did exactly that with his first delivery.
As I took guard against the bowler – a lad who was a medium-paced cart horse – I was almost blind with nerves. I whacked the bat into the block hard, as though to release the emotion. As he let it go I couldn’t believe my luck. From the moment it left his hand I knew it was a dolly, a full toss on the legside. There was a split second of joy as I realised I could hit the living s*it out of this. It was hip height and I swung the bat at it and battered it so hard it flew beyond the boundary and disappeared into the undergrowth that led down to a beck beyond the field. Six.
Suddenly, that knot of nerves and anxiety was unravelled by this one excellent strike. It was as though I hadn’t a care in the world now. It really was like having heavy weight lifted off my shoulders. Remarkably, the ball now just looked huge and I couldn’t miss it. I scored 15 off that over, running three on the last ball to keep the strike. Now I was facing the better, faster bowler again. But this time when he put one down on a full length on the off stump, I went on the back foot and drove it square for four. The short ball reared up again but I flat batted it over mid wicket for four more. He tried an even shorter pitched ball, but I put that over long leg for six. I put 18 on the board during that over.
All nerves gone now I fancied myself as Botham in 1981 at Headingley. The other batter semed to get confidence from my free scoring and started to play a few shots as well. With three overs to go we got the hundred up. I was on 68 and had played an absolute blinder. We needed just twenty more. They’d put a spinner on who couldn’t really even spin it. He was just a slow lobber. I was cocky now. I fancied I could get 20 off him and win it in this over. So not even bothering to take my mark, just standing there with bat half-raised as he trotted in, I took two steps down the track, turned it into a full toss and sent it back over his head for six more. This was so easy. I was going to be the hero and win the cup for the school. I tried to repeat myself for his next ball but caught it off the bottom of the bat so it only went for four. We now needed ten. A six and a four again I fancied. He really was such a rubbish bowler and sent one down that pitched just short of a length and was begging to be belted. Bam. I dispatched it for four more. Three balls remained in the over and we needed just six to win.
There was a delay getting the ball back. As I waited, resting my weight on one hip, I fancied like David Gower, their wicketkeeper came up to the stumps.
“He’ll get you out now,” he said, smirking.
“Bollocks,” I retorted, feeling the arrogance of a big score on the board.
“Nah, he will. It’s what he does. Everyone scores loads off him and then he bowls a great one and gets them out. Does it all the time.”
As the ball was retrieved and found its way back to the bowler, I couldn’t shake the thought that he was being sincere. He wasn’t trying to psyche me out. He was just telling me the truth.
And now the bloody nerves returned, as quickly as they had left me earlier. My mind went into overdrive. What should I do? Within a few seconds I’d convinced myself this ball was going to be superb. I’d better watch it closely.
Down it came. And it was actually spinning this time. Oh god. I followed it out of the sky onto my bat. As it his the wood I could feel it grip into the bat and fly off at an angle. I’d tried to just push it into the off but it had ended up going straight back up the track with the spin.
I glanced at the wicket keeper. He was grinning at me.
The fifth ball came down. Was it spinning? No. I could’ve put my front foot down and sent it over the boundary on the off for a six. Easy. But I didn’t. The wicketkeeper had got in my head. I was scared now. I didn’t want to take a risk so I just blocked it.
If the last ball had been the last ball of the innings I’d have had my mind made up for me and would’ve just slogged at it regardless, but there were two overs to go. Plenty of time to get six. But then, what if it was another easy ball? Should I hit it? Yes of course. But what if it’s his good ball? He’ll get me out and I won’t be the hero. Hit it. No. Don’t hit it.
Down it came and my mind was still arguing with itself when it landed. In panic I just swung blindly at it. I hit it. Yes. But straight in the air to mid on. The feeling of hot lead in my guts as I saw it going down the throat of the fielder has never left me. These things seem to happen in slow motion. Seconds like minutes. I’d got caught in two minds, hadn’t connected properly and had sent an easy catch at head height rather than over the top of him.
He put his hands up, palms out to catch it. It went in…and bounced out. He’d put it down. I’d got lucky. The other batter took guard for the new over, scored a four and a two and won the game. I’d scored most of the runs but I didn’t come out as quite the hero as I’d hoped.
I’ve never forgotten that innings because it was such a psychological rollercoaster, nerves turned me from zero to hero to zero and proved just how important what is happening in your head is when you walk out to the wicket.
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