Samir Chopra March 29, 2009

Staying power

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 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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