August 23, 2013

Kerrigan's dream turned nightmare

Why does a cricketer's long-cherished hope of performing on the biggest stage often crumble on the big day?

The sight of Simon Kerrigan bowling on day one of his Test debut made spectators stare at him in disbelief, then condemn his selection, and later feel sorry for the poor lad. His cherished childhood dream, of playing for England, had turned into a nightmare on his first day at the office.

The knowledge that many of his senior colleagues either boast Test centuries on debut, or remarkable bowling figures, must have weighed heavy too. That mindset of inflated expectations and fear of failure can affect a debutant horribly sometimes.

Kerrigan's first over went for ten runs; his next two included a huge full toss and a half-tracker that made him look woefully out of place. A stage as big as the Ashes can trigger a terrible chain of slip-ups, one leading to the next: a nasty trap with no exit.

On the one hand, the fantasy of playing for the country is so vivid and the visualisation so real, you as a debutant can almost feel your team-mates giving you high fives and the crowd standing up to applaud. On the other hand, you spend sleepless nights, twisting and turning, mulling over the possibility of being dismissed first ball, or getting hit for a four.

Days before the debut, you wear the team kit and stand in front of the mirror in the confines of your room, practising. While you're busy appreciating the gleaming national emblem on the breast of your t-shirt, performance anxiety, quite unnoticed, finds a way into the mindset. The cheers and applause you imagined are replaced by murmurs and disapproval. Doubt makes an unwelcome appearance, and pressure starts to make itself felt.

Thoughts of what if things go wrong, what if the ball doesn't come out right from the hand, what if my feet don't move when the bowler delivers, start surfacing. The more you try to shoo them away, the stronger they become. You know that you must break the chain and sleep peacefully on the eve of the game, but that's the last thing that happens. The thought of realising your dream keeps you awake, till exhaustion - emotional and physical - takes over and you crash.

Some top athletes foresee this predicament and train themselves to deal with it. Indian Olympic gold medalist shooter Abhinav Bindra stayed up many nights in the run-up to the big event. He knew that sleep might desert him on the eve of the big final, and so he meticulously prepared himself to perform in spite of a lack of sleep. As he had guessed, he couldn't sleep the night before his big performance in Beijing, but that didn't affect his performance.

Sachin Tendulkar, too, didn't sleep well for about a fortnight leading into the match against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. If performance anxiety can keep seasoned sportsmen on edge, spare a thought for Kerrigan, who was thrown into one of the most high-profile Tests of the year on debut.

Thoughts of what if things go wrong, what if the ball doesn't come out right from the hand, what if my feet don't move when the bowler delivers, start surfacing. The more you try to shoo them away, the stronger they become

For him, the morning of the match, the warm-ups, the presentation of the cap, must have all passed in a jiffy. One moment you are warming up, the next you have a bat or ball in hand, practising your skill set, and then, before you've absorbed the first few drills, the captains are out in the middle for the toss. One part of you wants proceedings to slow down so you can soak it all in, the other part, impatient and excited, wants to get it all over and done with as soon as possible. Then you're there, in the middle, 45,000 pairs of eyes watching your every move. In theory you're with ten other men of your clan; in reality you're alone.

I distinctly remember playing my first ball on my Test debut. Even though I felt reasonably well prepared, I prayed I would not get out first ball. A part of me felt paralysed with anxiety. I'm glad the other part was still awake and helped me take a single off the first ball. A monkey the size of a dinosaur was off my back. Looking back at it, what if I had played and missed for a while and hadn't got a single for the first 25 balls? I'm certain I would have melted under the pressure and played a rash shot.

That was what happened to Kerrigan, unfortunately. Shane Watson, in imperious mood, went after the debutant, and he didn't know how to react. A man who had bowled over 9000 balls in first-class cricket and had taken 164 wickets ended up bowling chin-high full tosses and long hops.

It could possibly have been Kerrigan's worst-ever bowling spell at any level, and unfortunately it came in the biggest match of his career, in front of a packed house. Stage fright took control of him and the dream turned into a nightmare in the space of 12 balls. His past stats report that Kerrigan has been a much better bowler than what we saw on the first day at The Oval. But it will require a miracle comeback from him in this Test, or immense faith from the selectors and captain to restore his confidence.

He may still be able to turn it around, for a bowler doesn't only get six opportunities in an over but also many overs to bowl in a match. However, that also means that you stand to be exposed many times over, as opposed to a batsman, whose misery might last only a few balls.

The great Shane Warne and many others have recovered from forgettable debuts. Simon Kerrigan would want to find consolation in that, and the famous Zen saying, "The arrow that hits the bull's eye is the result of one hundred misses."

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here