Belief blows behind Indian sails

Belief, in its sporting form, is a much-trumpeted and fervently sought commodity. Fans express it in their team or club; coaches and captains declare themselves to have it in their players, their processes, their preparation; players claim it in themselves. Its presence is often viewed as a necessary component of victory, its absence or fragility is routinely stated to be a critical contributor to defeat.

In February 1912, Franz Reichelt had belief. The tailor, inventor and optimist stood on the first deck of the Eiffel tower, almost 60 metres above ground level, wearing a home-made, self-developed parachute suit. You would not put yourself in a situation where the terms "home-made" and "self-developed" could precede the words "parachute suit" (and/or follow the words "stood on the first deck of the Eiffel tower"), unless you had a fairly strong belief that (a) you were about to demonstrate to the world the brilliance of your revolutionary creation, and (b) you would not plummet to a certain death.

Reichelt, by his very presence above his small, confused Parisian crowd, and by his refusal to entertain the warnings of friends that Gravity has repeatedly proved itself a worthy foe to the human race, demonstrated the kind of belief that can turn sportsmen into winners. In a different scenario, his confidence could have made him a champion. But this confidence was, as confidence often is, far from doubt-proof. He stood on a chair, teetering on the edge of the French metal megaspike, for a considerable time. He struggled with his inner self before taking his physics-defying leap into aviation-accessory history. But eventually, he summoned sufficient belief to propel himself off the celebrity tower and towards mankind's natural habitat - the ground.

Reichelt's jump was at least 100% unsuccessful. As uneven contests go, Reichelt versus Physics was more one-sided even than Sri Lanka against South Africa, or Bangladesh versus India, have been this week. Belief is not always enough. Sometimes, you are simply outclassed by a superior opponent, and the Austrian-born Frenchman was 103 years ago in his brief and inevitably ill-fated tussle against cold, hard scientific reality. The gravitational pull of Planet Earth taught him a lesson he would not forget in a hurry. Or remember in a hurry, being, as he was, at least 100% dead.

Bangladesh played with belief in Melbourne. At least, they played with apparent belief for two hours of highly competitive cricket, in which they checked an ominous Indian start, gave nothing away to their rightly vaunted opponents, and bowled and fielded like a team that knew it belonged in a World Cup quarter-final. Then, the belief was tested. Umpiring decisions that could have strengthened their confidence further, went against them. Bowlers lost their discipline, fielders blundered, and Rohit Sharma unfurled the full extent of his brutal beauty. Reality reigned, and the decisive phase of the match was conclusively lost.

In reply, Bangladesh's openers batted with a frenzy of hope rather than the positivity of belief. Imrul Kayes, with six consecutive single figure scores in ODIs since August, including innings of 2 and 2 since his summons to join the World Cup side, cannot have honestly believed he was the man to anchor a chase of 303. He swung violently at Umesh Yadav, and missed the ball by as much as you would have expected him to miss it. Tamim Iqbal, with only one score of more than 20 in his previous seven ODIs flayed some boundaries but could not convey permanence. When Mahmudullah, whose form gave Bangladesh a faint prospect of overcoming their statistically superior opponents, was caught somewhere between zero and two millimetres from the boundary, the game was decided.

India cannot have begun the tournament overbrimming with belief, after a wretched, victory-free winter that seemed to confirm them as soon-to-be-ex-World-Champions. But if their short-term belief was minimal, their long-term belief, after winning the last two major ODI tournaments, must have been strong, and the tournament format gave teams that began with a victory the chance to build form under minimal pressure. From the time that Dhawan and Kohli gave them a strong start against Pakistan, India have rampaged through the tournament. They have suffered barely a punch from their seven opponents.

Of all the terms associated with Indian cricket, "unstoppable pace machine" has not been one. Until now. Their pace trident took seven more wickets at the MCG, bowled with pace and menace again, and have now taken 43 wickets at an average of 17.0, lower even than Australia, and far better than any previous Indian World Cup seam attack.

Their individual improvement is close to astonishing. All three are relatively inexperienced - Yadav and Shami had 40 ODI caps before the tournament, Mohit Sharma 11. Mohit had taken 10 wickets at 40, and been wicketless in six of his previous eight ODI innings - he has taken 11 wickets at 21.72 in the World Cup. Yadav had reasonable form in the latter half of 2014, but a moderate overall record (63 wickets at 32.30, economy rate 5.68), and took 2 for 97 in his two games in the triangular contest in January. He has 14 wickets, average 17, economy rate 4.5. Mohammad Shami - 2 for 98 in the triangular series - had a good wicket-taking record in ODIs, but an economy rate of 5.50. He is, at least until Mitchell Starc and Wahab Riaz try to overhaul him in Adelaide, the tournament's leading wicket-taker, with 17 at 13.29, and an economy rate of 4.43.

How can this remarkable advance be explained? Belief is playing its elusive part. Do not believe me on that. Believe MS Dhoni. After the Melbourne victory, he attributes his pacers' improvement to them having learned the importance of consistently, repeatedly "hitting that one area where you want to bowl, and building up pressure, in partnerships".

"India might win the World Cup without its newly brilliant pace attack ever coming under that scrutiny, without having to claw back an escaping opponent, or maintain their current precision when inaccuracy could mean defeat."

India's no-longer-outlandishly-potentially-double-World-Cup-winning skipper continued: "That actually creates that pressure where the batsman gets out. I feel bowlers have really tasted it, and now they actually believe in that. Seeing it is one thing, believing it is something that's more important because once you believe in something like that you keep working on it. The subconscious keeps working, and the good thing is it becomes part of the system."

The depth and strength of a team's or a player's belief cannot be accurately measured - Statsguru has no filter for finding, for example, batsmen who scored centuries because they woke up feeling good about themselves, or bowlers who took 0 for 90 after suddenly remembering that their opponent once obliterated them and called them "Big Bertie Boundary-Conceder" during a drinks-break.

Moreover, teams and players with genuine, battle-toughened belief can still lose. Teams and players with fragile confidence can and do win. Belief is but one of the commodities that influence sporting outcomes, along with skill, fitness, luck, determination, money, fear, attention span, the capricious will of Zeus, the relentless march of time, whether a boundary rope is a millimetre one way or the other, Ian Gould's conception of what and where a waist is, and many more.

Belief is also, to an extent, reactive. It can also grow and dissipate with alarming rapidity, depending on the events that can shape it. Will the Indian bowlers' belief in themselves and their methods remain unbroken for two more innings? As impressive as they have been, they have not been scrutinised by genuine, potentially World-Cup-losing pressure. Their batsmen have given them sizeable targets to defend, or they have dominated with the ball from early on.

India might win the World Cup without its newly brilliant pace attack ever coming under that scrutiny, without having to claw back an escaping opponent, or maintain their current precision when inaccuracy could mean defeat. They might maintain their standards and still lose. It will be fascinating to watch.

Did Bangladesh believe they could beat India? Probably. Did they continue believing they could beat India once Raina and Rohit had their narrow escapes and began to assert their champion qualities? Probably not. Fortunately, exiting a cricket tournament is not quite as terminal as exiting the Eiffel Tower platform. Bangladesh's World Cup was vastly better than 2011. If Franz Reichelt had had a second chance to hurl himself from an inadvisably high platform on an iconic landmark, he would no doubt have improved on his first effort. Whilst the Associates, according to current plans, may well find themselves involuntarily Reichelted out of the 2019 World Cup, Bangladesh, assuming they make it through from their qualifying tournament at home, will have the opportunity to test to rigour of the belief they have constructed this tournament.