Five decades or so ago, Dr. Walter Mischel, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University, conducted what came to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. According to the Positive Psychology Program website “Mischel and his colleagues wanted to see if preschool children (around four-years-old) had developed the mental capacity to resist the temptation of a small reward to earn a larger reward later. They presented each of the 653 subjects with a choice: ring a bell and get one marshmallow immediately or wait fifteen minutes and earn two.
“While a minority of them instantly opted for a single marshmallow, most children attempted to hold on, for varying times, to get their reward. In the end, only about thirty percent were able to delay gratification for the full fifteen-minute period earning their second marshmallow.”
Following up on his experiment years later, Mischel found that the children who waited for two marshmallows turned out to be more successful as teenagers and as adults. They earned much higher SAT scores, developed superior social and emotional coping skills and were even less likely to abuse drugs.
The lesson is therefore clear; the habit of delaying gratification is a good one to strive to develop. Indulging in an immediate pleasure can be tempting, but is it worth giving in if you stand to gain even greater satisfaction in the end?
In Brisbane, during the first Ashes Test, two batsmen reaped the rewards for delaying gratification. In England’s first innings, James Vince compiled an attractive 82. Well known as a batsman of polish, the 26-year-old had a rather miserable seven-test run in the summer of 2016, averaging a paltry 19.27. His main vulnerability, everyone saw, was his frequent dalliances outside off-stump. He had a marked fondness for the off-drive. And while they were exquisite when they came off, too often they resulted in catches to the wicketkeeper and to the slip cordon.
In Brisbane, however, Vince made telling adjustments to his game. Against Australia’s highly acclaimed pace attack, the Hampshire batsman was much more circumspect, showing little interest in deliveries not threatening his stumps, and attempting fewer drives. Whenever he did attempt the drive, he made sure the deliveries were well up, minimizing risk by eliminating the need to reach too far away from his body. According to website Cricviz, “Vince’s false shot percentage (shots edged or missed) when driving against pace fell from 32% in his firsts seven Tests to 16% at The Gabba,” a significant reduction.
Vince’s selection came as a surprise to many who thought he was rather fortunate to be now offered a second chance. But a more ascetic approach to deliveries outside off paid immediate dividends. Though England eventually lost the game, his innings was vital to their total of 302. And were he not unfortunately run out by Nathan Lyon, a century seemed exceedingly likely.
The other batsman who decided to resist immediate temptation in order to place his team in a strong position is Australian captain, Steve Smith. His remarkable, unbeaten 141 was largely responsible for Australia’s win. Easily one of the two or three best batsmen in the game, the right-hander realized that fluency at the “Gabbatoir” was a luxury neither he nor his team could afford. He, therefore, shelved the cover drive for much of his innings. Ironically, one of the few times he unveiled the stroke, was to hit the boundary that took him to his century.
Smith’s innings, for the most part, was one of restraint and circumspection outside off. Cricviz revealed that he chose not to play at 24% of the deliveries he faced in Brisbane. His career average is 15%.
Eschewing the cover drive made a lot of sense. The ball did not rush readily on to the bat. Additionally, there was some bounce on offer. Driving could be hazardous unless the batsman got very close to the pitch. The adjustments that Vince and Smith made were, therefore, smart ones, and probably led to both batsmen being successful under the circumstances.
We have had instances of others doing likewise. In 2004, Tendulkar decided to put away the cover drive in Sydney, after falling to the stroke in Melbourne. Five previous innings yielded him only 82-runs, well below the standards he had set for himself. He was determined to make things right. The result was 613 minutes at the crease for 241 runs without a single drive through the covers. Even as Laxman enchanted the gathering with drives through the off side and all round the park, Tendulkar remained resolute, never once departing from his pledge, though the temptation to do so must have been considerable.
We have also witnessed instances of batsmen who made pledges they failed to keep and paid the price. Prior to the November 1984 test against the West Indies at Perth, Australian Kim Hughes vowed to resist the risky hook shot until, he said, “I am 150 and we were 3-330.” Early in his innings, however, Michael Holding fed him a bouncer which he promptly hooked down Malcolm Marshall’s throat at deep square leg, playing the shot 146 runs earlier than promised.
Few shots in cricket are more delectable than the well-played drive off the front foot through the offside. We remember well, for example, those played by Ian Bell or VVS Laxman or David Gower. But, it is a shot that should be played with utmost care on most occasions. Batsmen who regularly throw their bats at deliveries outside are not likely to be consistent run-scorers. On occasion, the stars will align and they’ll play a few grand innings that will have viewers singing their praises. Like Vince in his first coming, however, they’ll be found out at the elite level if they continue to play in that manner.
Nine years ago, West Indies batsman Adrian Barath made a rousing second innings century on his Test debut in Brisbane. The then 19-year-old, highly regarded in the Caribbean at the time, was exceedingly forthright in his approach. His century came off just 138 deliveries. The Trinidadian smashed 19 fours, most of them were powerful drives through the offside. To a Caribbean audience hungry for hopeful news, the innings was widely hailed. And if much was expected from the youngster before, the innings brought even weightier expectations.
But his methods could just not last. He played 14 more Tests and could only manage an average of 23.46. The talent was apparent but the approach was flawed. The vulnerability outside offstump, obvious even as he took the Australian bowling apart, never allowed him to be consistently successful.
And so it is with many players who don’t exercise the necessary discipline outside offstump. The ball whistling to the cover boundary from a well-executed drive is a joy to witness. It undoubtedly gives the batsman great satisfaction also. But, it is often wiser to resist the early temptation in order to reap greater rewards in the end. Vince and Smith showed how to achieve that in Brisbane. Others are well advised to emulate them when the circumstances warrant that kind of approach.