They say, Cricket is a ‘batsman’s game’. Since the advent of the sport, batsmen are being considered as the privileged class and bowlers have always been at the receiving end at the 22-yard pitch, which is nothing less than a slaughterhouse for them.
Well, in today’s day and age, it is indeed a fact that rules of the sport are heavily against the bowlers but it is not batsman’s fault either. In fact, unlike in any other sport, here, a cricketer does not get a second chance while batting. One mistake and they have to go back to the pavilion. In soccer, a striker can miss numerous goal scoring opportunities but still can come back to rectify it. In Tennis, we have seen in the past that Andy Murray surrendered a 40-0 lead as he served for his first Wimbledon title in 2013 before eventually overcoming Novak Djokovic.
Unfortunately, one can not make such telling errors as a batsman – when one faulty piece of footwork, a lapse in concentration or slight misjudgment can prove costly.
It is why, according to Steve Bull, who was the England men’s team psychologist between 1997 and 2014, batting as a sporting discipline is “as close to unique as you can get”.
Bull was a part of the backroom staff during the famous Ashes victories in 2005 and 2010-11, but was also present for lows such as the 0-5 reversal Down Under in 2006/07. He knows the intricacies of the game, having witnessed first-hand the effect that they can have on world-class players. These days Bull is working as an independent psychologist and a motivational speaker. He is also a published author and has written books on mental toughness.
“A slight error of technique and you are out,” says Bull. “One mistake. The margin is so ridiculously small, and the consequences of a mistake are so huge. The knock-on effect is that after two or three low scores, the rest of the mechanism kick in and the confidence starts to go.
“It can take you into the abyss.”
Well, this is not news to Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a West Indies veteran at international level, where flaws are exposed most brutally and scrutiny is most intense. Chanderpaul is the fifth-most capped player in Test cricket, scoring 11,867 runs over 164 Tests at an average of 51.37, putting him eighth on the list of all-time top run scorers.
Yet he was still a victim of those same demons.
“He’s perfectly spot on there,” says Chanderpaul, when asked whether he agrees with Bull’s assertion. “These days bowlers study you more – it’s not that easy. Bowlers can tell when you’re struggling. In difficult conditions, you might be able to leave a few, but one or two you might nick off. It depends how long you’re able to stay out there, if you can get lucky and miss those balls.”
Luck is an important element of the game. But an outsider always struggles to compute it.
As Bull explains, a batsman can do “everything absolutely right” and still end up back in the hutch. At time it can end careers. “There are many walks of life where, if you take control, if you’re confident, resilient and conscientious, it will take you far.”
“In cricket, you can get that piece of bad luck, and that hard work comes to nothing. Conversely, if you’re in bad form and get dropped at second slip, then things go your way and you score a hundred: bingo. If that catch had gone to hand, that’s another failure.”
Remember, India tour of England in 2014? Ravindra Jadeja dropped a sitter in the slips at Southampton which allowed a struggling Alastair Cook to get back in the grooves and subsequently revive his career.
Nevertheless, Chanderpaul believes in cashing in when things are in favour.
“I would always go out and play a bit harder if my place wasn’t on the line,” he says. “I would just fight as hard as I could, try and bat as much as I could. You don’t want to be in that situation when you’re being put under pressure. You feel a little more relaxed, but you dig in.”
The challenge is for batsmen who don’t yet have the statistics of a distinguished career like Chanderpaul to back them up to show the same mental strength.
“You can’t have a situation where your confidence is dictated by how many runs you’ve scored,“ says Bull. “That’s not a good state of affairs. That means that if you’re scoring well, you’re confident, and if you’re not, you’re not. Better players are resilient and tough players. They say, ‘I’m taking control of this. I’m going to feel confident. I’m feeling good in the nets, hitting the ball well, moving my feet.’ That’s good psychology. If you are more of a worrier, very negative and very analytical, it can take you deeper into trouble.”
That is why Bull encourages several of his clients just to relax – “it’s a cliché, but sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break and switch off” – by going out for a drink or a day out.
“It is very much player-dependent,” he says.
“There were some players who liked structured thought and process-orientated strategy to get ready. With other players, the best they could do was to forget it. It takes you to a sports psychologists’ favourite maxim: control the controllable.
“When a player is worried about whether they are going to get picked or not, they have no control. You’ve got to come to the next session completely refreshed and start again.”
Chanderpaul managed to combine that approach with avoiding the desire to step away from the game when unhappy with his form.
“If I was struggling, I would be in the nets, hitting some balls,” he says. “If I don’t feel good about it, I’ll do the work until I start feeling good. If I feel OK, I’ll ease off, take a breath, and not stress about it.”
Meanwhile, that last point, according to Bull, is the key.
“Don’t let that voice in your head take over,” he says.
“Every day: start afresh, control the controllable, here we go.”