Some years ago I spent a day with Sachin Tendulkar in Mumbai, and our conversation segued into a game — I would mention a year and a venue, and Sachin would come back immediately with how many runs he made, how he got out, and some other details you wouldn’t expect him to remember. Later I mentioned this to Rahul Dravid in Bengaluru, and he too, it turned out, could do same thing.
The question of memory in sport is a crucial one. It helps you remember and dip into experience — bowlers are always told by coaches that memory is an important asset — and it also helps focus. You can call up Erapalli Prasanna, the great off spinner of the 1960s and 1970s any time, and he will tell you how he bowled to Ian Chappell or how he tucked away in his mind the ball that got Clive Lloyd. This is an automatic reflex.
The second, focus, is what psychologists call “working memory”, the ability to concentrate on the job in the face of distractions. Asked after an innings if someone (a photographer, I think it was) who followed him all the way to the wicket had distracted him, Tendulkar answered honestly that he didn’t see him at all.
When you see top players performing under pressure, it usually means their working memory is well tuned. Psychologists use an analogy to make the concept clearer. It is the ability we have to shut out all the sounds in a noisy bar and keep up a conversation with a friend.
Viswanathan Anand can recall every game he has played over the last four decades or so (and lots of others, besides), the moves, the position at any point, the mistakes, both his and his opponent’s, and you have to evoke that poem we learnt in school: “And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew. That one small head could carry all he knew.”
Research with chess players have shown that two elements hold the key: practice, and pattern recognition. That’s easily said, not so easily (for the rest of us) done!
The tennis great Ramanathan Krishnan also has amazing recall. We were once talking of a match which had taken place three decades earlier, and he remembered not only the scores, the strokes he played, he could even tell me at what point he changed his racquet! I checked out the first two which were spot on, but there was no way of confirming the change of racquet. Chances are that was spot on too.
As a reporter, it was important to double check, of course. When I started out, I was gently warned by a senior to be careful about the statistics one cricketer spouted. He spoke fluently about figures, and matches and it was a marvel till I remembered the warning and double checked. Only to find that most of the figures were, how shall I put it, less than spot on! Memory plays tricks too.