Losing the plot in the mind

THE Indians choked yet again in a Cup final. The 18-run defeat in the title duel of the IndianOil tri-nation series in Colombo's Premadasa Stadium reflected a familiar Indian vulnerability in a big game.

Any side that requires 96 runs at just over run-a-ball in the last 15 overs with eight wickets remaining, and still gets the script hopelessly wrong has plenty to worry about on the mental front.

For the Indians, it was a common mess-up at the business end of an ODI competition. Since 2000-2001, the side has gone down in 10 of the 14 tournament finals it has figured in. This is a dismal record for a side blessed with a fair amount of talent and experience.

While the stirring run-chase at Lord's in the NatWest tri-series final was an exception, the trophy had to be shared on three occasions, including the two rain-affected finals against Sri Lanka in the ICC Champions Trophy, 2002.

It is clear that India loses momentum just when it needs to peak. When all that is required from them is to approach the job on hand with common sense in the last few overs, the Indians tend to panic.

The capitulation in the climactic stages of the recent tri-nation series in Sri Lanka is a classic case in point. The Indians lost the plot when they had all but shut the door on Sri Lanka.

Forgettable stroke selection, thoughtless running between the wickets and the failure of a specialist batsman to take responsibility till conclusion allowed Marvan Atapattu's men to sneak back into the encounter.

And once they were provided with a lifeline on a familiar hunting ground, the Lankans, sniffing a win after looking at a rare home defeat for most part, regrouped. India was gradually squeezed out of the final.

Winning is a habit and is an offshoot of a vital commodity — self-belief. Victorious teams roar back just when the contest appears to be getting away from them. And they invariably progress to win.

Not for nothing is Australia a great team. Cricket is a test of skills, but whether a side conquers the demon of self-doubt or succumbs to the pressure is decided by factor X — the strength of mind.

All things equal, it is the mind that provides the decisive edge to a team. If a team is in the dumps, it is the mind that decides whether the odds can be surmounted. And if a team has the opposition down, it is the mind that ensures that the upper hand is maintained.

If Australia has been the dominant force of our times, it is because skill and fitness are enhanced by a strong mind. Someone like Steve Waugh would thrive during times of crisis. Glenn McGrath would thunder in with greater resolve when the opposition had its nose in front. And an Adam Gilchrist would travel a yard further in his dive, if a critical breakthrough had to be achieved.

In contrast, the Indians, particularly in a tournament final, tend to get themselves into a hopeless tangle. And when desperation creeps in, cricketing logic becomes a casualty.

Greg Chappell has rightly laid emphasis on the mental aspect, but he needs to be given time and space before the effectiveness of his methods, that are innovative, can be judged.

The Indians, presently, languish at the seventh spot in the ODIs, which does not speak much for them as a unit. And this is a team, which often gleams with individual brilliance.

If the batting capitulation towards the end was pronounced, the Indian fielding and bowling in the first half of the decider in Colombo were disappointing. When there is a need to dish out free-flowing but focussed cricket, the Indians tend to `freeze,'; their tentative ways indicate that they were being shackled by the burden of expectations.

It would be incorrect to state that the Indians are jinxed in the final. More than any luck factor, the string of Indian setbacks in the final can be attributed to a mental fade-out for which the team-management will have to find a solution.

The famous triumph in the NatWest series of 2002, where the Indians successfully chased 326 at Lord's, was largely because two young cricketers, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif, played with freshness and freedom, lifting India from a hole.

India requires a similar bold response to adversity in a Cup final. In Colombo though, the Indians put themselves in a pressure situation and then hopelessly lost their way.