Psycho-babble

Why are cricket writers and fans so ever-ready to comment on the players' psychology?

Have you noticed that cricket fans and pundits are all expert mind-readers? With the emergence of twitter, these mind-readers are now noting down what they read so other people can see. The body-language experts are their allies. These are people who can spot when “heads drop” or spot “intent” with unerring accuracy. They can spot when a player is short on confidence, or is over-confident. They can spot fluctuations in confidence levels as they occur. They can tell who is trying and who is not, who is determined and who is scared. Put a man in cricket gear and point a camera at him, and his very being is laid bare to these experts just from a glance at the action on the magic screen. They say that it has happened, and it must be so. In the process, they have invented a whole corpus of terms.

Leadership, Mentality, Mental Strength, Mindset, Intent, Momentum, Confidence, Toughness, Captaincy, Effort, Character, Grit, Determination, Intensity, Galvanization, Guts, Wearing the Heart on the Sleeve, Checking the Right Boxes, Phlegmatic, Calm, Dropped Shoulders, Dropped Heads, Game Of Cat And Mouse, Maturity, Flair, Synergies, Gumption.

Somewhere, groaning under this lexical rubble, lies cricket - the encounter between bat and ball. We have come to prefer to discuss it the way the modern British monarchy presents itself to the world - cloaked in layer upon layer of symbolism, icons, ritual, euphemism and fantasy. This is so for the monarchy because the British monarchy is a fragile 19th century constitutional contraption which exists to preserve the ridiculous hereditary principle while stripping the hereditary monarch of all political power. It needs its fairy tales, protocol, capes, jewels, crowns, weddings and castles, because without those, there’s literally nothing there. But why is it so for cricket?

Do we do it because deep down we all know that watching someone fling a ball at someone else standing 20 yards away holding a long wooden paddle is absurd on its face? Is it because nobody actually cares about the details of batting and bowling, but only about the ways in which batting and bowling form the canvas on which eruptions of jealousy, cowardice, nobility, heroism, glory, tragedy, climax, anti-climax and other ersatz emotional tropes which form the basis of the Soap Opera industry can be easily mounted? Even routine cricketing events and observations are thought of in terms of things like psychology. Here’s an example.

Pakistan’s openers were on their way to a century opening stand in their 2nd innings at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi in the 1999 winter. Later, after the game was over, Anil Kumble observed that “it was a question of one wicket”. Kumble’s observation is often cited as key psychological point about that chase - that somehow 1 wicket would change the mindset of the Pakistani batsmen and the Indian fielders and help them build momentum. Note that now we have two claims - one about the players minds and the other about something called “momentum”.

Neither is necessary. The simple cricket point Kumble was making was that it was much easier for batsmen to start against the new ball on that Kotla wicket, and much harder against the older ball. Breaking the stand which had developed with two set batsmen who started against the new ball would provide the spinners with a new batsman at one end. Kumble’s point could be fully explained purely in terms of the material conditions of the pitch, the tendency of wickets in India to be easier to play on when the ball was new, and the match as it had panned out until them (India produced an opening stand of 88 in their 1st innings and were bowled out for 252. In the 2nd, they lost an early wicket, but still reached 168/2 before being bowled out for 339. In that fourth innings Pakistan went from 101/0 to 207 all out.

And yet, despite this cricketing explanation being available, you’re likely to hear everything but the cricketing explanation when that famous Test match is remembered. The cricketing explanation sounds too working class. It is as though it is beneath the white collar desk-bound writer who sits under a comfortable fan (or air-conditioning) and enjoys the hospitality of the host board to provide such a menial discussion of the cricket in terms of the conditions of the pitch, what the ball was likely to do off it, what the spinners were likely to achieve, how the probabilities would shift from lefty to righty because of where the rough was, how (and if) the bowling attack was able to control the scoring because of its accuracy. No, the cricket writer’s managerial explanation must speak the language of the manager and the executive. There must be some unseen higher forces guiding the lowly labours of the cricketer. Someone must be inspiring, someone must be supporting, someone must be monitoring, someone must be supervising, someone must be sitting back and casting a synoptic eye on how the winds are blowing and issuing executive instructions.

So a batsman is not late coming forward to Pat Cummins because the length is magnificent and puts the batsman in two minds about whether to push forward. The batsman is low on confidence and has developed a technical problem which requires supervision. The player must be withdrawn because he’s making the managers look bad. This is a spectacular delusion of the press box and the fan alike. It never amounts to anything. Its not as though any of these people are going to chip in and arrange help for the player.

But discussing only the cricket - the batting and bowling - limits the scope of the journalist. Imagine what a journalist who respected the player’s skilled labour enough to describe it seriously would do. First, they would have to study a lot of other deliveries bowled by Cummins to other batsmen. Then they have to start identifying patterns. There’s a fuller length Cummins bowls - which is his sucker ball because its usually on a 5th stump line. That length is easier for the batsmen to come forward to (but the line is harder to cover because of Cummins’ extra pace). Then there’s the straight ball which is just short of a good length, which the batsmen can typically stay back to. And then there’s this magnificent in-between length where the batsman realizes that he must come forward, but its just a little too late. And so if its the way going ball, the drive usually squirts in the direction of cordon (Gill hit one like this in the 4th innings at Melbourne, he aimed an off-drive and was through with the shot even before his front foot could be planted, and it went for an uppish four through gully), If its the rarer incoming ball, bowled, LBW or the catch at short-leg off the bat-pad are all on.

By the time all this has been thought through, psychology no longer has to be invented. Nobody’s mind needs to be read. No sweeping claims about the “build up of pressure” or “fight in the batsman” or “lack of concentration” need be made. One does not have to make assertions about the morality of the player’s labour. The difficulty and complex anything-but-easiness of it provides enough material for a rich description of the action.

Don’t ex-players read minds too? Ex-players understand the complexity of the players labour. They’re using a short-hand and they know the iceberg which lies beneath the surface well from personal experience. You and I and the overwhelming majority of the people who write about cricket don’t. But there are very few ex-players and a vastly larger number of cricket writers. And ultimately, they have to talk to us. So they indulge us. The players themselves have turned this into a fine art. Every player from every team speaks in press conferences as though they’re deeply immersed in new age psycho-babble. In the press conference, Ajinkya Rahane says “intent”. But when he’s among his own practicing, he speaks about batting and bowling. He probably speaks very little. He probably practices a lot. For cricket is physical labour involving the mastery of extremely complex skills.

Are we interested in that labour? Or are we rubble enthusiasts? That is the question.