Stop experimenting

VIVIAN RICHARDS... benefited from Dr. Rudy Webster's methods of concentration.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Cricket is basically a mental game. We are reminded of that every time India loses and a debate begins on whether the Indian team needs a psychologist or not. In the history of Indian cricket, barring a few, most of the talented players failed to live up to their expectations in the international arena. They were known to lack in temperament.

Richie Benaud in his foreword to Dr. Rudy Webster's `Winning Ways' says, "The cricketers and the footballers have each spent 20 weeks trying to fashion their chances to play Test match or a grand final. But are their heads ready? There is never any shortage of talented sportsmen either in this age or in past eras, some have been potentially great but have never quite managed to take that last little step. It is in fact a giant stride".

What he means is that many cricketers, despite their huge talent, have not been able to handle pressure. But the point is, not many know what pressure is and how to handle it.

In 2003, Sandy Gordon, a renowned psychologist from the University of Western Australia, was asked by the BCCI to prepare a document on the mental toughness of former Indian cricketers. Based on the data he collected by interviewing former Indian cricketers, Gordon prepared a document, which is now being implemented by Dr. Kinjal Suratwala of the National Cricket Academy by visiting the associations. Ideally, such a document should be made public so that the aspiring cricketers can train their mind to attain a certain level of excellence.

Compared to the time a cricketer spends in honing his skills and keeping himself fit by working out in the gymnasium everyday, not even one percent of that time is devoted in a day for mental conditioning. The degree of concentration that one sees on the face of Tendulkar or Dravid is the result of hours of work that they have put in through mental conditioning exercise.

Dr. Webster, who has been contracted by the BCCI to have sessions with the Indian team, may not be a psychologist, but being a student of medicine and a former county cricketer, he has evolved a method that has helped Viv Richards, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee immensely.

On the tour of Australia in 1975, a young Viv Richards hardly scored in the first half of the tour and the team management decided to drop him. Dr. Webster observed that Richards used to get nervous particularly when he was awaiting his turn to bat. His level of anxiety was high in the dressing room and it was more when he went out to bat.

Dr. Arthur Jackson and Webster taught Richards how to sort out that problem by concentrating in certain ways. According to Dr. Webster, Clive Lloyd, West Indies' skipper then, made an important decision by asking Richards to open the innings in order to eliminate the periods of anxiety that he experienced in the dressing room. The rest is history. Richards became one of the greatest batsmen in the world.

Virender Sehwag began his career as a middle-order batsman, but the moment he opened the innings he became successful. He too may have had the `Viv Richards' syndrome, and possibly must be suffering the same now after being pushed back to the middle-order. A mindset of an opener is quite different from that of a middle-order batsman. An opening batsman thinks, or is expected to think differently from the others.

Recently, when opener Wasim Jaffer batted at No. 4 for the MCA Colts in the Moin-ud-Dowla Trophy, a former Indian batsman conveyed him a message stating that it was not proper for him to bat in the middle-order. Not many batsmen who have shifted to opening the innings in Test matches from the middle-order have succeeded in Indian cricket. Even Viv Richards came back to his original position in the middle-order after overcoming his anxiety problem.

Greg Chappell always said that cricket is all about confidence. But going by their body language, do the Indian cricketers look confident? A cricketer in the Indian team is a case study for any psychologist. Perhaps Dr. Webster, after having sessions with the players, may say that the BCCI has to cut down on the frequency of offshore tours.

A player, with some scientific practice, can get into form and get rid of his fitness problems. But if he is mentally drained out after playing too many matches, the process of getting into proper mental make-up is not as easy as one might think. That process takes a long time.

Sehwag and Irfan Pathan are the kind of players who love pressure situations when they are confident, but since they are not able to respond to the experiments of the Indian team management, they don't look confident.

Great players know when to switch on and off. It doesn't make any difference to either Tendulkar or Dravid when they keep switching their batting positions. But in the case of Sehwag and Pathan it matters.

The Indian team is not a chemical laboratory where one can go on experimenting endlessly. Experiments with mindsets can be disastrous and Dr. Webster must explain this to the BCCI and put a stop to it.