It's all about the little things in sport

Great sportsmen notice the small things that escape others — and they know how to take advantage.

Andre Agassi revealed that he knew exactly where Boris Becker would serve by watching his tongue. “The hardest part wasn’t returning his serve; it was not letting him know that I knew this.”   -  Getty Images

Remember the poker scene in Casino Royale? In effect, it is the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre) versus Daniel Craig (James Bond). Whenever anyone uses the term ‘poker face’, it is Le Chiffre’s expressionless look that pops into my mind. A poker face is a must-have in poker, of course, but it’s valuable in other sports too.

Reading the face or body or personal tics for clues to where a striker might place a penalty kick or a seamer bowl his special delivery is crucial. It gives the rival a split second’s extra time that can make the difference between responding correctly or being fooled. Most sportsmen try to hide such tells — giveaways that telegraph their intentions.

An India batsman once told me he could pick the leg-cutter from the great off-spinner S. Venkataraghavan by studying the way he wiped the ball before setting off. Maybe he was pulling my leg.

The revelation by Andre Agassi that he knew exactly where Boris Becker would serve by watching his tongue sounds like a leg-pull too. Here’s what Agassi said: “Just as (Becker) was about to toss the ball, he would stick his tongue out. And it would either be in the middle of his lips, or to the left corner.

“If he’s serving in the deuce court and he put his tongue in the middle of his lips, he was either serving up the middle or to the body. But if he put it to the side, he was going to serve out wide.

“The hardest part wasn’t returning his serve; it was not letting him know that I knew this.”

Agassi who began with a 0-3 career deficit against Becker finished with a 10-4 record; maybe that was his secret. Great sportsmen notice the small things that escape others — and they know how to take advantage.

Football goalkeepers develop the knack of deconstructing a rival’s movements in penalty situations. Strikers learn to disguise their intentions better, leading the goalkeepers to pierce the disguise, and so it goes on.

Coaches advise young goalkeepers to watch the planted foot for a clue because it usually indicates the direction of the shot. The hips provide a pointer too, and sometimes the head.

Leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett invented the flipper after years of work. Then batsmen noticed a tell. The effort he put into that delivery caused him to snap the fingers of his bowling hand. Few secrets survive long, and to retain his special delivery Grimmett worked out a plan. He would bowl a leg break but snap the fingers of the other hand to confuse the batsman.

You can either hide your tell or misdirect the opponent with it.

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