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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on January 3, 2014, 1:55 GMT

    So true.

    If England wrapped up the Aussie tail in Brisbane when we were 6/132 and had Aussies out for 180 instead of 295, they would have been seriously pumped and confident, the Aussies would have been full of doubt, Mitch would have had more pressure to bowl tight, and the English batsman would have swaggered to the crease.

    And the series would have been vastly different.

  • andrews on January 3, 2014, 1:37 GMT

    Many of us rest our case. 3 down for not many, a seaming deck, Cook brings back the-former-best-swing-bowler-in-the-world (he never was actually not even close) and doesn't give him a third slip. The ball goes straight through there immediately. Baffling, yet utterly predictable. Even Ponting was a better captain.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 21:47 GMT

    Great article, but I'm not too sure about Mitchell Johnson being called a 'sexy woman'!

    (From the initial quote & the first sentence...)

  • Rob on January 2, 2014, 20:10 GMT

    Brilliant column, anyone that's played knows how much of it is in the mind.

  • ian on January 2, 2014, 18:59 GMT

    The major interest for me over the next few days is watching how Eng's players perform, not just in statistical terms, but in positivism & body language. It's as such moments as this - the Ashes long gone and only the whitewash to prevent - that we can learn something of the mettle of Cook & his men, one by one. They are all on parade, up for inspection. Who still wears the Three Lions with pride? Who will stand up & (re)gain repect? This match shd actually be viewed as a tremendous opportunity.Years ago there could have been an appeal to go down fighting, based on the British 'virtue' of fighting to the last man. HMS Revenge was out-numbered 53 to one by the Spanish fleet, her crew reduced from 250 to 16. The Charge of the Light Brigade; Henry V before the siege of Harfleur - all immortalised by great poets. Winning or losing was subsidiary to honour, as it should always be. Perhaps a group reading of some of that great stuff can stir up some fight in Eng at the SCG? Team talk done!

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2014, 13:00 GMT

    Confidence built on or from results won't last longer and will last till results last because results are inconsistent beast. Confidence can last very long when we know the best methods of inspiring up ourselves for showing positive and continuous efforts all the time despite the results especially at the time when the results are not going in favor.

    As a human being we always have to learn new things and improve ourselves in terms of relevant professional skills and other physiological and psychological factors to keep ourselves ready to perform at the best of our efforts.

    Results will take care of itself.Results sometimes shows us what we need to improve or what kind of processes we have missed which we were following till now. so get back to basics or add new basics and move on.

  • Yasir on January 2, 2014, 12:58 GMT

    Very well written I felt. Makes me wonder if there is any sport out there which is a bigger 'leveler' than cricket, Test cricket more so when you have the no.1 team in the world and the no. 1 captain in the world in the lowest low. The 2nd best spinner in the world retiring mid-series, a crucial no. 3 batsman returning home following mental illness (depression). All this alongside a bowler Mitchel Johnson who has been finding it hard to find a place on the bench, becomes a superstar. Yes, I agree that it is confidence and some luck, but if you really think about it realistically, I think it is hard work which has done it for Johnson, Clarke (captaincy was in doubt) and Warner (kept on getting boo'ed all over England). Yes, cricket is the biggest leveler. I think that is why you need to remain humble and modest throughout your careers. Characteristics greats like Kallis, Sachin, Lara, S. Waugh and Imran protruded - making them greats!

  • Henry on January 2, 2014, 11:06 GMT

    Beautifully written, Mr O'Brien. As well as his left- & right-hand men, Cook has perhaps also lost the confidence concerning something else very close to him: where exactly his off-stump is.

  • Sriram on January 2, 2014, 10:35 GMT

    Warine wanted Boof in the job, Mitch bowling again in Ashes and Warner opening..all reasons why Aus is 4-0 up. that is genius stuff and you love or hate Warnie, he surely has played his part via media before and during the Ashes.

  • Sriram on January 2, 2014, 10:30 GMT

    I remember Sachin being questioned in media by an english journo on Englands chances down under. His reply was a straight 'if england can get past Johnson..then..' and how true it turned out. I guess SRT knew it in the nests during CLT20 that here is a bowler who has some agenda on his mind and Mitch has just carried on from there.

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