Indian cricket fans have grown up hearing the story of how Ramakant Achrekar used to place a one rupee coin on the stumps while Sachin Tendulkar was batting in the nets in his youth. If any bowler got Sachin out, he could take the coin, while Sachin could keep it if he was not out until the end of the day. There are similar peculiar stories about the childhood of batsmen of great pedigree, which are just as intriguing, if not more. One such story involves the greatest batsman of all time of the sport, Sir Don Bradman, while the other features the prince of batting from Trinidad and Tobago, Brian Lara.
As a child, Bradman had invented his own game which would allow him to bat non-stop for hours. He used a cricket stump as a bat and threw a golf ball against the water tank stand made of bricks in his house. He hit the 'unpredictable deliveries' that would bounce back at him off the water tank stand. He even constructed Test match situations in his head by assuming the wall of his house to be fielders.
Lara did something incredibly similar. He used a broom handle or a stick for a bat and used marbles as balls. He would bounce the marbles back at him off the porch of his house. Pot plants were arranged as fielders around him and he would try and find the gap between them with his shots.
These games involved a delicate combination of batting skills and mental conditioning. While hitting the erratically ricocheting ball needed sharp hand-eye coordination, responding to the match situations created by imagery and inanimate objects in the vicinity challenged the thought process that goes into batting. It is quite clear that these games had improved the coordination between brain, eye and hand for both Lara and Bradman at an early age.
Their little idiosyncratic games are even more interesting and significant under the context of cricket (and batting in particular) being as much a game of the mind as it is of technique and talent. We often see batsmen suffer slumps in form even though there is nothing wrong with their technique or fitness. Accomplished batsmen would vouch that a large part of scoring runs is just about confidence.
Steve Waugh's much acclaimed 'mental toughness' was probably a great example of a batsman using his mind to overcome and enhance whatever was lacking in skill or ability. Players like Richard Hadlee and Rahul Dravid consistently trained their minds to achieve the best possible results on the field. Dravid had a visualization routine before every match, in which he would imagine himself out in the field, batting against the opposition bowlers under match situations of extreme pressure. Positive reinforcement techniques are used to draw from past successes to garner the confidence needed for the next challenge.
For batsmen, their belief of how much they can score off a delivery is often the limiting factor of how much they actually do. Not many batsmen from the pre-T20 era would have considered the reverse sweep, the switch-hit or the scoop to be viable cricket shots. Harsha Bhogle pointed out in a recent article that perhaps the risk associated with many cricket shots had been overestimated in the past and Twenty20 is forcing batsmen to make a recalculation. While there have been few physical changes (one could possibly argue that modern batsmen have better protective equipment, meatier bats and flatter wickets to play on), the paradigm shift has been in the minds of batsmen. Batsmen of the past era were possibly prisoners of their own minds which made them under-achieve as batsmen and under-explore the range of their ability.
To play cricket at the highest level, a player needs more than just skill, talent or experience. Temperament is a much sought after quality by international coaches, captains and selectors. So much so that one might be pardoned in assuming that it is all about mind over matter in cricket. The Indian team famously enlisted the services of sports psychologist Sandy Gordon of Australia for mental conditioning during the 2003 World Cup. Paddy Upton played a similar role during India's rise to the No.1 spot in Test rankings and the 2011 World Cup campaign.
While many players have found ways to train their minds and bodies separately, Bradman and Lara had invented ways to train both mind and body simultaneously; perhaps not even realizing the significance and consequences of what they were doing at that early stage in life. It is difficult to clearly establish exactly what influence these sessions of ingenious variations of cricket had on Bradman's and Lara's batting. But one thing is quite clear. It was not mind over matter for them. Their batting expertise was based on extensive early stage development of mind and matter.
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