Deconstructing cricket May 26, 2018

I'll be seeing you

How does visualisation help players perform better in matches?

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Sports scientist Shayamal Vallabhjee explains the science behind visualisation

It was the night before the final day of West Indies' Test against Australia in Barbados in 1999. West Indies were in jeopardy: 85 for 3, in pursuit of 308 to win. Prospects of victory, it was obvious, hinged upon Brian Lara, who was 2 not out, after surviving a tetchy end to the fourth day.

When stumps were called, Lara had a chat with Rudi Webster, West Indies' mental-skills coach. In his book, Think Like A Champion, Webster recalls:

"My advice to him was to imagine the game as already won and to visualise and feel himself constructing that victory. I asked him to mentally rehearse seeing the ball the moment it leaves the bowler's hand and to feel his movements as he gets into position smoothly and quickly to stroke the ball into the gaps in the field. I also asked him to see and feel himself playing his natural game, facing one ball at a time, and enjoying the challenge."

The following day, Lara played one of the greatest innings of all time. In the euphoria after his 153 not out, Lara told Webster: "I was seeing the ball so clearly that I couldn't miss it. Everything worked out the way I imagined it."

Lara was an adherent of visualisation, as Rahul Bhattacharya detailed for the Cricket Monthly. An old school friend, Nicholas Gomez, had earlier given him a book on Michael Jordan, which included a section on how Jordan used visualisation. At 6am on the day of his 153 not out, Lara called Gomez. "We went about planning this innings against the best team in the world. And it was amazing to see how it just came to fruition."

Before they head onto the field for a game, most of the world's best cricketers have already, like Lara, been there in their heads. Some do this in the middle itself - either with their bat or just their hands; some just do it in front of a mirror at home or, as Lara did, through talking the innings over.

Such visualisation aims to prepare players by decoding the opposition and conditions before game day. "What you're trying to do in visualisation is build that depth of experience even though you're not physically doing it," explains Jeremy Snape, a former England cricketer who has worked as a sports psychologist in six editions of the IPL. "When your brain has that conditioning, it's more likely to respond in a favourable way under pressure. What athletes then do is try and first visualise it, then stimulate it, then practise it, then do it."

Visualisation can help players remain more grounded during matches, keeping their focus upon their normal processes rather than what is new. Snape explains: "We want to make sure that our decision-making is as calm and rational as it possibly can be, rather than being emotional and irrational, which is what happens under pressure."

Matthew Hayden would habitually sit and meditate on the pitch a day before the match © Getty Images

The tool can be invaluable for players who don't expect to play. On South Africa's tour of Australia in 2008, JP Duminy was the reserve batsman and faced a tour carrying drinks. Snape, then a consulting psychologist for South Africa, observed that Duminy seemed "disgruntled, dragging around his bag at training". He set Duminy a challenge: "Why don't you prepare for this Test match as if you're the captain of South Africa in four years' time? We prepared as if he was going to take them on for real." Duminy was given various simulations, including imagining that he was facing Mitchell Johnson when Lonwabo Tsotsobe bowled his left-arm pace in the nets.

The day before the first Test, Ashwell Prince broke his thumb and was ruled out on the morning of the game. Duminy hit 50 not out in the second innings as South Africa chased down 414 in Perth. In the next Test he hit 166, an innings for the ages, as South Africa sealed their first Test series victory in Australia.

Pre-game visualisation aims not to inhibit instinctive play but to enable it. After each net session the day before a game, Matthew Hayden sat cross-legged by the stumps, grasping his bat in his hands and closing his eyes. He began the process as a child when he would train until he dropped, and then sit down to discuss the session with his older brother, who was his coach.

Of his method throughout his professional career, Hayden explained: "I continued the process of gathering my thoughts, sitting down in an environment which was comfortable and going through the kind of expectations I had in store for me in the week's period of the Test or the one-dayers, getting used to the conditions, understanding where the breeze is coming from, what the bowler's arms were going to look like, so that there were no surprises on the day, and just going through how I felt at that time."

After playing the innings in his head - not just picturing the bowlers he would face, but their angles of attack and how they would try to bowl to him - Hayden returned the next day to bat. "In the middle, I would let it all go and be completely relaxed, looking down at the wicket, loving the environment of being outside and being in a physical state of mind where I would be at peace."

Players even visualise how best to breathe between balls - which can help them maintain their equanimity and focus, and so keep their focus on the next delivery, rather than the opposition's attempts to frazzle them. For instance, when a bowler moves several fielders back, as preparation to bowl a bouncer, Snape says, earlier visualisation of breathing techniques can keep batsmen calm in the moment - and make them less susceptible to bowlers bowling a yorker as a bluff.

For batsmen, visualisation is a tool to demystify bowlers. On West Indies' tour of Australia in 1975-76 tour, Alvin Kallicharran was struggling against Jeff Thomson. Webster encouraged Kallicharran to practise against Thomson in slow motion, and then imagine that he was bowling at his normal speed. When he became comfortable with the idea of this, Kallicharran then visualised facing Thomson at twice his normal speed - and, in his mind, could still see the ball when it was released from the hand, gauge the line, angle and length and get into position to play his shots.

In his next innings, Kallicharran made a rapid 76. He then told Webster: "Everything happened the way we visualised them. I was alert but relaxed throughout my innings, and at no stage did I lose control. And I saw the big, bright red ball the moment it left the bowler's hand."

While visualisation is particularly favoured by batsmen, some bowlers have also used it to good effect. Wasim Akram's late wife, Huma, a psychologist and psychotherapist, introduced him to the concept.

"When I started playing cricket as a professional, nobody told me how important the mind was in cricket," he said. During matches, Akram "used to visualise most of the deliveries that I bowled. For example, if there were reverse swing, I would bowl three awayswingers and then the inswinger. But before I bowled the inswinger I would visualise it and would see the ball swinging from outside the off stump into the batsman's pads or the stumps."

As with many other areas beyond the field of play, more cash and personnel are now being allocated to sports psychology.

"The understanding of neuroscience is the thing that's advanced in the last five-ten years," Snape observes. "Neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to grow connections and change through repetition and skill development - is really powerful." In Formula One, drivers can now visualise their lap times to within a few seconds, such is their depth of preparation.

Virtual-reality technology, which is already functional and rapidly developing, will take visualisation to a new level. Players will not just be able to visualise the bowlers but also the grounds, crowd and the noise in a stadium. It will then be possible for overseas batsmen to prepare for a tour of England, long before they have even left for the trip, by strapping on VR goggles and facing James Anderson and Stuart Broad at Lord's and Trent Bridge.

Not even Lara before Bridgetown was able to prepare for an innings with such thoroughness. But visualising like Lara is one thing; batting like him quite another.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts