The Match Beyond Cricket: A Psychological War

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More than just the statistical advantage, cricketers are always looking to gain a psychological advantage wherever possible (image from cricketmademecrazy.blogspot.kr)

A cricket match is seen, in essence, as a duel between two sides with the bat and ball. While that is the textbook definition of what’s going on, there is often another duel that takes place on the cricket pitch. The battle of minds. This battle is, as I like to put it, “the match beyond the cricket.” It is not something that can be shown in numbers, but can be felt in the atmosphere of the match. When the bowler fires in an attacking short ball and gives you a death stare, or when the keeper is taunting your batting average, you’ve got psychological war going on.

This battle is of such importance not because of any value it has to the statistical aspect of the game (the ump isn’t gonna give you five runs for bullying the keeper) but because it can affect the rhythm of a player, and lead to profound consequences.

This is why it is so important for players to play for the psychological absence as well as the statistical one. Batsmen need to make sure the bowler never gains the format foot over them, and vice versa. This is why I feel that (in limited overs cricket) the first 3 balls of an over are the equivalent of the center of the board in chess. The one who makes the most of those three balls puts himself in a great position to gain a psychological advantage over his opponent. For example, if a batsman smashes 3 boundaries in the first 3 balls, he leaves the bowler a little uncomfortable: why aren’t his methods working? He then is forced to try something new, often beyond his comfort zone, to try and dislodge the batsman. In other words, he’s left playing “catch up”.

At this stage, the batsman can relax a bit more, and simply take what can be taken. Even if it’s three singles, the damage has been done. What also happens is that the bowler has a higher tendency to make errors, which can cost him runs. Same thing applies the other way around as well. If the bowler bowls three good deliveries that the batsman is unable to play, he may resort to something beyond his comfort zone, most commonly the exotic reverse sweep, which would lead to his wicket falling (which in most cases is more severe than leaking runs).

However, beyond this we must also consider the fundamental reason a player ventures outside his comfort zone to try and regain a lost advantage: pressure. All players feel pressure, especially when they’re up against the wall, trying to hold together a delicate situation. True, it is this pressure is often what brings the best out of players, and makes cricket that much more exciting. However, it can also do terrible things to players. It can turn absolute gentlemen into cussing ruffians. It can get a batsman bowled attempting a paddle scoop of a delivery he would have thwacked straight down for six another day. It can make a bowler bowl wide full tosses even if he’d got his yorker right 60 times in a row the night before. It can even make fielders drop catches they would have held on to single-handedly another day. In short, pressure can bring out the demons of any player, and is in short, the “atom bomb” of this psychological war. If a player succumbs to pressure and loses his nerve, he will be crushed by the boulder of the game and it’s demands. Luckily, the more experienced cricketers usually never go that low, as the power of personal experience keeps them resilient. However, for younger players, with little experience and high expectations for themselves, this pressure can be like a death blow. How often have we seen young batsmen fall playing rash shots when the going got tough? How often have we seen young bowlers completely fall apart to assaults from batsmen? Again, it just goes to show that cricket is as much a mind game as it is a physical one.