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March 29, 2009

Samir Chopra

Staying power

Samir Chopra

I wonder if other cricket fans have had this experience: you read expert analysis of the game, you hear television commentators dissect a game finely, and you wonder, do all these fine-grained distinctions really exist, are all the things being talked about--reading the ball out of the hand, setting the batsman up with a sequence of short-pitched deliveries--real, or are they just stories, entertainments for the benefit of the fan? And then, one day, while playing the game, you realize, no, it's true, this thing really does happen out in the middle. When that happens, your appreciation of the game changes, and the next time you watch the game, you aren't watching remote, abstract, heroes any more, but rather, players just like yourself, albeit far more talented, skilled and diligent, that have conquered a challenge you faced as well.

In this post, I'd like to be self-indulgent, and talk about an experience of mine that led me to partially understand how the state of mind of a batsman could change in the course of an innings, from utter diffidence to one of supreme confidence. I focus on this experience because in my professional academic career, it became evident to me that what separates the men from the boys is not so much raw talent as a work ethic, a state of mind that permits diligence to take precedence over distraction. And thus I've wondered about the mental aspects of cricket, about how it is some batsmen can construct long innings while others seem congenitally incapable of doing so. In this experience, while I didn't solve the mystery of how a state of confidence could be maintained over a long period of time, I did come to understand what it felt like, and why staying in that zone can be a pleasurable experience in its own right, and by being an end in itself, lead to the construction and maintenance of a long innings.

Back in 2001, I played in the Northern Sydney Suburbs C-grade competition. We played both one-days and two-days, with outright wins in the latter format ensuring the most points. In one game, we gave up some 270 odds run to the opposing team, and when our turn came to bat, lost 7 wickets rather rapidly. There was plenty of time left on the second day, and we were facing an outright defeat if we got bowled out again after following-on. I went out to bat at #9. The opposition's quick bowlers were making the ball fly all over the place; the slips and gully cordon was chattering away, making perfect nuisances of themselves. I batted for a couple of overs, unable to get bat on ball, all the while fearing for my own physical safety. Two more wickets fell, and we were nine down. Number 11 came out to join me, and somehow we put on 50 or so runs, and more importantly, chewed up a huge amount of time, which resulted in us avoiding an outright defeat.

In the course of my innings, as bat increasingly made contact with the ball, my sense of my abilities grew and grew. I began to play more strokes, I ran harder between wickets, I even sledged back at the slips. I grew to believe I could not get out; I felt I would not even feel the ball if it crashed into my body; the fielding side's visible frustration fed into my confidence; and I wondered if there was any way in which I could possibly be dismissed. More to the point, I felt an intense pleasure at experiencing such total, utter, confidence. And like any good hedonist, I didn't want it to end. Playing cricket can often result in cruel blows to one's self-esteem: was I really that hopeless when I dropped that catch or bowled those full-tosses? This experience was uplifting and exhilarating, and I realized, as I was walking off the field after the No. 11 had been dismissed, that great batsmen, unlike the minnows, are much, much better at finding ways to guard this treasured emotion, this feeling of being at the top of one's game. Perhaps the mystery of how batsmen maintain their concentration in long spells is to be found in their deeper enjoyment of such moments of mastery of this very difficult game.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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Posted by iwannaBhadlee on (April 6, 2009, 4:53 GMT)

Yea Im not really sure what you are talking about Playing for my local pub for 2 seasons a total of 26 innings I scored a masterful 21 runs, with an impressive high score of 5 (a fluke boundry)for a Chris Martinesque average of about .90 Batting confidence was never my strong point nor was stick around at the crease for more than 1 over

Posted by Sunny on (April 2, 2009, 16:10 GMT)

Watch Tiger Woods play and you will know what self control is. When others (World rankers) melt away on the toughest of courses, this guy works through almost anything that is thrown at him. A Rocco Mediate might have felt what you explained on couple of days to get to the final round, but only a Tiger can come from behind, and have the self-belief to win. You see the "shutting out" when Rahul Dravid/Kallis are batting. They look so serene and so lost in thought, while actually not thinking about anything. We mortals may feel like this once in a life time, but they do day in and day out. Hence they are the champions of what they do. I was fortunate enough to talk to one of the ex-test players and naturally asked them, how they remain focussed for so long. Simple answer: "ball to ball. if you ask a test batsmen during their innings, what they were thinking last ball, they will give you a blank stare, since they don't remember anything about it."

Posted by Khadir on (March 31, 2009, 1:41 GMT)

Important post sir, good job i say. Indeed at any level, cricket is governed by cricket, and the Spirit of the game--is an exhilirating one and indeed it cannot more be described than the best of any feeling--and confidence in self is as an eagle soaring in the heaven.

Posted by Abhik on (March 30, 2009, 15:26 GMT)

Wonderful post and a nice little discussion going on here as well. I suppose that's why one hears many great cricketers saying that cricket builds character. Samir's thoughts point to what is the secret of success of great players and how confidence can make a world of a difference. Similar lessons can be learnt from saurabh's anecdote as well.

Posted by MarcB on (March 30, 2009, 11:40 GMT)

Samir, what you describe is known elsewhere as mastery of the Inner Game, which is basically trusting to your body's natural abilities rather than controlling your movements with conscious thought as you play your sport. The most important factor in playing the Inner game is shutting out thought and thus losing the fear of failure, meaning you start playing with natural freedom. Most people who play sports at any level will have experienced this exhileration, whether it be cricket, tennis, golf or anything else. The spell is broken once you allow the conscious mind to take over again. Masters of the Inner Game report that that they don't seek concentration as a prerequisite to excellence, rather is the state of deep concentration an objective, a result, of the approach. High performance is an inevitable by-product rather than the focus of the mind. This technique is a risk certainly, but one worth taking, since ensuing satisfaction is unparalleled.

Posted by Shekar on (March 30, 2009, 9:03 GMT)

This is exactly what happens in Golf as well. Except that the opponent is yourself and nature. There is not an error that you can commit and there is utter freedom in the strokes that are played. Self belief reaches a pinnacle and nothing can go wrong. However, come the morrow and gone is the freedom in the swing and with it your confidence. The harder one tries to get it the more difficult it becomes. When one is in the zone just enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Posted by saurabh on (March 30, 2009, 0:32 GMT)

Continued from Last entry... After being dropped for the next game so as to let my injury being healed, I was asked to open the batting as our 1st parternships had been really poor during the tourney we were participating in. It was our first early morning start 8 AM game and hence the air was cold and some moisture in it. I was the new opener, the other guy was the established one and he was constantly encouraging me, but just to our team's misfortune he got out in the first over, and then we lost 2 more wickets to stand at 3/10 after 4 overs.I batted on till the 11th over in the 20 over game, scored 25 runs in 30 odd balls,Hit just one four, but was determined enough not to throw my wicket away.It was an important game for us and somehow my team sensing that if I (who was under the surgen's scapel 3 months ago)can play, they can play as well and we did eventually put up a competitive score.I did not play flamboyantly but that day until I got caught slogging no one could dislodge me.

Posted by saurabh on (March 30, 2009, 0:26 GMT)

Samir, A similar thing happened with me last year.I was making a come back in my club team in Colorado after a break of 5 months due to a knee injury and since I have always been an attacking batsman, I went for my shots straight up as I was doing great in nets and practice games, but reality is always starker and different, I was hit twice on the left roll of the pad close to where I had the surgery and instantly my stance changed and my approach changed so as to protect my knee. Real game situations are always difficult than practice, sensing that I was in some sort of problem, the rival team started sledging hard and I never to back out of it, took on their best bowler and creamed him for 22 runs in an over, including 2 hooks as he tried to bounce me out. I actually sledged him as he trudged to his bowling mark. Unfortunately I was run out in the very next over, I had stayed on for like 4 overs scored some 26 runs in 15 odd balls but I knew I was back I just felt it inside me.

Posted by boom on (March 29, 2009, 20:53 GMT)

sameer, why don't we see you at BR forum any more ? any particular reasons. we miss you man !

Posted by Stephen on (March 29, 2009, 20:00 GMT)

Quite inspiring actually, makes me want to play for a 2 day side.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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