Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Never under-estimate the "psychological game" of Cricket

If you're an avid cricket fan, then you won't go through a game of cricket without experiencing every kind of emotion that's available. In my case, if the game is "on", then it will probably come as no surprise to those that know me, to see me yelling at the TV, throwing my hands up, punching my pillow or ranting at a player/umpire/commentator. Yes, I've got it bad!

Most of the time, it's the psychological part of the game that has me intrigued. I mean, to play at the professional level of cricket it's a given that players have talent, skill, desire, luck and performance. However, in the match itself, there is a whole lot more going on than just the cricket action.

Let me put it like this...

We've all been curious about certain behaviors on-and-off the field, but especially on the field. And there have been certain performances by teams where we've thought, why does that keep happening?

For instance:
  • why has Sri Lanka struggled to win:
    • the last two ICC World Cup ODI finals in 2007 and 2011, and 
    • the ICC World Cup T20 final in 2012?
  • why does South Africa have a reputation for "choking" in major tournaments?
  • why is Australia particularly renowned for "sledging"?
  • how come some captains have the ability to bring out the best in their teams?
  • what's all this fuss about a batsmen's form?
  • why do teams target the opposition's strike bowler as a strategy?
  • why has a captain set a field that puts a fielder in the line of sight of the batsman?
  • why is it risky to over-celebrate getting a wicket?
...  Oh, I could go on, and on with these questions!  ...

Anyway, all things being equal (i.e. assuming each player in the team has trained and come to the game with the intention to perform for the team), it all comes down to psychology, as well as mental strength and endurance. That's what makes cricket a fantastic playing and watching experience, if I say so myself.

Right now I'm tuned into the ICC Champions Trophy 2013 and it's down to the semifinals between England v South Africa and Sri Lanka v India. The matches thus far have been really good, especially those involving Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan team have a knack for bringing an emotional rollercoaster ride to almost every match. I think it has a lot to do with some of the unorthodox players and strategies they bring to the game.

If you take the last match between Sri Lanka v Australia, where Sri Lanka won and qualified for the semis, there's much to highlight about cricket psychology.

One example is how Australia approached their batting in the second innings of the match. They knew they had to chase down the total put up by Sri Lanka within 29 overs (i.e. requirement to beat New Zealand on net run rate) to qualify for the semis. They needed to take the battle right to Sri Lanka and their strategy was to attack the strike bowler. When Malinga came on to bowl you could see the Australian batsmen literally try to spank him out of the park. From a purely psychological perspective it's making a real statement to the other team. If they are lucky not to get out to Malinga while charging down the pitch and score runs off him, particularly boundaries and sixes, then it can mentally affect both Malinga and the rest of the team. Usually, if your strike bowler (i.e. your lethal weapon) is hit out of the park it's "alarm bells" for the team. It takes a mentally strong bowler to withstand the heat.

There was a bit of banter (possibly sledging going on) during the match, particularly between Wade (Aus) and Jayawardene (SL). Australia has a pretty solid reputation when it comes to sledging during cricket matches. You could say it's part of their cricket culture, though not so much on the sub-continent. Over the years I've watched many matches with fascination and noticed there are specific times when sledging is heightened or rears its ugly head. Usually, it's when the opposition is scoring a lot of runs off their bowlers. It was no different when Wade started on at Jayawardene, as the latter was scoring pretty well against the Australians. That said, Jayawardene gave it back to Wade in spades, verbally and with his bat!

A provocative example is the one around over-celebrating or posturing after taking a wicket. It is getting way over-the-top at some of the cricket matches these days. The match between Australia v Sri Lanka was no exception. Who could miss Lasith Malinga taking Glenn Maxwell's wicket and the Usain Bolt-esque manner in which he sent him back to dressing room. The fact is, on the one hand it makes for interesting viewing and in that moment for the bowler, some sort of elation from getting the wicket. On the other, it can err on the side of poor taste when you consider that cricket is meant to be a "gentleman's game". Well, that kind of behavior is, for all intents and purposes, saying "you can shove the gentleman's part up my arse!" It also evokes negativity if taken too far leaving a distinctly bad taste in your mouth. But, the point I'm actually trying to make is the risk it poses to the person that takes it over the line. In Malinga's case, did you notice how his bowling performance dipped after that? Interesting huh? Now, if you take the example of M.S. Dhoni, one of the most prolific captains for India, have you "ever" seen him over-celebrate or posture after wickets are taken? The answer would be a resounding "no" because he clearly knows the risks and is "Mr Understated" himself. Something for everyone to consider...

As for the question on batsmen's form, I could write at length about my perspective on this. But, I'll keep it short for now. There's a physical action element to this (i.e. talent, skill, practice etc) and a psychological element (i.e. mental toughness, calm, concentration etc). Much is made about the physical action side of the equation, but I definitely feel it's a lot more to do with the psychological side. Yes, you need all the physical elements, but if you had done all that was required to prepare for the match, why couldn't you pull it off on the day? Now, if you had a formula or elixir that you could give to any batsmen about "how to psychologically prepare and play each match", I believe it'd be like winning the lottery!

So, hope you enjoyed my "spin" on things!

I'm now looking forward to India v Sri Lanka at Cardiff today... and by the way, I have to warn you now, the weather forecast is overcast conditions with a chance of light rain.

Be sure to have your brolly and calculator at the ready!

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