England in Australia 2013-14 January 2, 2014

The strange beast called confidence

While Mitchell Johnson rides a wave, Alastair Cook has discoverd the perils of having to take big decisions alone in a stressful time

No matter what a woman looks like, if she's confident, she's sexy.
- Paris Hilton

And, heck, Mitchell Johnson is damn sexy right now. Not only is he currently exhibiting one of the more illustrious and virile moustaches in world cricket (second only to Ravindra Jadeja's, for me), he is functioning like a model who has just walked out of the make-up suite and onto a catwalk knowing he's the best on show.

He knows he's good, right now. He knows he's supreme, right now. He didn't when the series started. He would have been unsure. He would have had his doubts. It's a growing, living organism. You can be assured he's riding the wave and enjoying drinking from the chalice of confidence and where it's taking him.

Not that long ago, Johnson was gulping and drowning from the other chalice, the bad one (you could have said he bowled like a drunk at times). We don't need reminding of the stories, that "song", and the bad place Johnson was in. When the self-belief departs, the mind is left with little but nasty voices and negative thoughts.

"Why is this happening?"

"What is happening?"

"Where has it gone?"

"Why can't I just bowl it f****** straight?"

In essence, the "yips": a complete and utter loss of form, belief and results for no apparent reason. A poor headspace leads to reduced success at training, and to miserable performances, thus reinforcing the poor headspace; and so it continues, around and around.

The yang to that yin is true also. And that is where Johnson finds himself currently. He will, with no doubt, be crowned Player of the Series at the conclusion of the Sydney Test. He has worked hard, ironed out an action flaw, discovered an approach to the crease that keeps him in control, and is having the success he has earned through genuine toil. As Horace wrote in his Epistles, "Who has self-confidence will lead the rest." Johnson's team-mates have jumped on-board and are sipping from the same chalice.

It took one guy to help the others believe, one inspiring performance. Johnson is the current pack leader - a role not always to be envied as it comes with responsibilities that can drag you down, knowing you have to perform, but the rest are infected with his belief and everyone is stepping up.

"Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence," Vince Lombardi said, and for this current England team, they've been infected with the contagion of a lack of confidence. It's got up, left town, taken all the cutlery, furniture, fixtures and fittings, leaving a empty house, void of comforts and places to hide. It's sad to see what was recently the No. 1-ranked team in the world, head down a hole with no rope or ladder in sight.

This doesn't make the England team poor. It does mean poor performances are easier to come by, though. The stress of failure weighs heavy. Failing your country, failing yourself, but the one that weighs the heftiest, failing your team-mates.

Without an individual's performances the team is playing short; when two or three players are not preforming, nor able to find a way to, it makes the others' jobs harder. Bowlers have to bowl more overs to cover for the one who is dragging the chain. Batsmen have more heat on them to bat time, score runs, and create partnerships. Under stress, we typically don't make the best decisions, as highlighted by the England batsmen in this series. Coping with stress, failure and expectation is part of the job, but you don't expect to see many, at once, fall into the same category.

Johnson is the current pack leader - a role not always to be envied as it comes with responsibilities that can drag you down knowing you have to perform, but the rest are infected with his belief and everyone is stepping up

It's horrible to watch but Alastair Cook, the ICC's best captain of 2012, is floundering. Cook's batting is scratchy, his catching has deserted him, his captaincy is under fire, and he looks like a man beat. Decision-making when the heat is on, when it's going against you, when all and sundry are weighing in with their opinions, will be the hardest for him.

Losing Graeme Swann and now Matt Prior (retirement and poor form respectively), cost Cook dearly in the fourth Test. Cook lost the two men he stands next to most, the men he bounces ideas off, takes ideas from. Prior on one side and Swann on the other, keeper and second slip. Two hugely experienced players who are confident enough to share their opinions with the man in the middle.

Very few senior players were seen approaching Cook when things were going downhill. It is easy to be so consumed by your own feelings, your own doubts and thoughts that you can't make a difference. Stress can make us selfish and go insular. Not intentionally - it just happens, it's a human response.

We make bad decisions, we can't see the right path, the mind just won't think clearly, we are wrapped up in the moment and can't see the big picture… tick, tick, tick, drop catch, TICK, TICK. There was no moment for Cook to take a little time out, to gather his thoughts, no time to escape the ticking. A horrible place, and he was left without the support he deserves as a captain.

Former New Zealand fast bowler Iain O'Brien played 22 Tests in the second half of the 2000s