September 1, 1997
BOOKS & THINGS
Cricket Commentary/Amrit Mathur
A Mantra For Success
It can only be pressure.
Each time the Indian team loses -- which is quite frequently these days -- exasperated cricket-lovers search for a reasonable explanation for the debacle.
There is no shortage of theories, there are as many opinions as there are millions owed to the tax authorities by Harshad Mehta.
The usual reasons put forward are lack of self belief, low fitness, poor fielding, inability to finish off a game, absence of pride in individual and collective performance... and so on, and so forth.
"Indians lose even from winning positions, choke, collapse because they are not tough" -- if I had a buck for every time I've heard those lines, I'd be owing the income tax department a few million too. Joking aside, cricketers are perceived as pampered and soft -- it is said they are not hungry, there is money in their wallets, but no fire in their bellies.
A lot of it is arguably true -- and yet, none of it explains our repeated losses -- which is why, to my mind, Gavaskar's diagnosis about mental toughness and handling pressure is significant.
And Gavaskar should know. He has always stressed that in intensely competitive cricket, temperament and not technique matters most -- a surprising admission from someone who possessed the purest batting technique in the game. Keeping the bat straight is fine, says Gavaskar, but if the spirit bends then you are gone. To succeed, a player needs to take hard knocks, to overcome pain and fear.
In his time, Gavaskar battled fierce quickies, took the heat without flinching, and such was his phenomenal concentration that he was impossible to dislodge. "The reason," says Bishan Bedi, who ranks among Gavaskar's biggest fans, "is because he was very determined and focused. He would take one look at the wicket and decide it was good enough for a hundred, and then he'd go out there and get it -- you couldn't shake him from his goal."
Apparently, so immersed was Gavaskar in his game that he wouldn't even glance at the scoreboard; neither screaming crowds nor sledging fielders registered on his mind.
Like all other cricketers, Gavaskar experienced spells of nervousness at the start of each innings, felt the enormous pressure of high expectations the nation had of him. "But that is part of the game," he says. "Once in the middle, it is a simple contest, one player against eleven. The key thing to remember is that you are allowed just one mistake -- there never is a second chance. So you go out there and you make the most of the one chance you do have."
It is this extreme intolerance of mistakes that makes cricket so demanding. It is also why mental toughness and an ability to cope with pressure is so essential to those wanting to become good practitioners of the game. Because one thing is for sure -- as Azhar was telling me just before leaving Sri Lanka, "I want to do well, I always want to do well -- but the fact that so many people are scrutinising your performance puts extra pressure on you."
Unfortunately, nobody has yet discovered a foolproof formula for handling pressure. If the batsman freezes at a crucial moment, if his feet don't move, if he gropes for the ball outside off stump, well tough luck old chap, maybe next time? Ability to survive, to take the fight to the opposition, to overcome adversity is innate. More, it is god-given -- encouraging words from your non-striker and advice from your coach are equally ineffective.
The Indians of late have been trying out methods to improve mental toughness -- without, it must be added, perceptible results. The South Africans are firm believers in motivational lectures, they regularly have psychologists speaking to players in a bid to enhance the latter's performance levels. Some of their players use yoga for focusing their minds and controlling jangling nerves. And the Sri Lankans, most of them Buddhists, pray in the dressing room before start of play.
Without any proven mantra for handling pressure, some Indians have begun looking for inspiration from within. Saurav Ganguly, having undergone a magical transformation in the last 18 months by dispelling serious doubts about his ability, thinks the only thing that matters is self-belief. Only last season, his selection was attributed to nepotism and regional considerations -- but he survived the trauma by stroking a grand Test century on debut.
"That was the turning point," says Saurav, "because I started believing in myself. I realised that regardless of what others said, the crucial thing was to have faith in my own ability. As long as that remains, I know I will hit the ball from the middle of the bat. If you have self-confidence then pressure is easy to handle. And without it, the best technique in the world is useless."
In team terms, meanwhile, pressure is apparently only as intense as you allow it to be. Ask Ajay Jadeja for his opinion on why the Indian team crumbles in crunch situations with distressing regularity, and India's newest deputy skipper says, "When you get right down to it, it's all a matter of habit. A team that is winning, it finds itself needing over a run a ball in the last ten overs and thinks hey, it's easy. A team that's losing, in the same situation, looks at the run rate and says, wow, over six per over for ten straight overs? What happens if a bowler bowls a good one? How are we going to make up for it? And that is when panic sets in and the mistakes begin to crop up."
And the solution?
"Belief," says Jadeja firmly. "In yourself, in your team-mates. And a firm conviction that you are good enough to go up against the best, and to win. Once let a team start winning, and it becomes very difficult to stop -- just as it is very difficult to stop losing, once you are on the down staircase."