Besieged as theyare by numbers, runs scored, metres jumped, money earned, models dated, sportsmen have a thing for figures. Especially percentages. Athletes, demonstrating impressive passion but a dubious grasp of mathematics, will claim “I gave it 110% out there”. Coaches will holler to their charges that success is about the “one percenters”, the tiny details that assist in finding excellence. Sehwag, no jalebis, bhai. Richie Benaud famously gave fortune a precise number, saying “Captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill. But don’t try it without that 10%.”
But the most commonly uttered percentage concerns mental toughness in the arena: Steve Waugh said sport is 90 per cent mental; Jimmy Connors said 95 per cent. Legendary baseballer Yogi Berra put it most deftly: “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”
You get the picture: It’s important.
It’s hard to pin down mental toughness, to give it a single dry explanation. Let’s just say it’s a mastery of the self, a withstanding of doubt, fear, pain, even when pressure has you by the throat; let’s just say it’s the strength to confront challenge rather than retreat from it; let’s just say it’s the ability to find your best when the moment calls.
Let’s also just say in a World Cup, where so many sleek teams are humming with intent, so remarkably even in talent, the difference between them could simply be heart.
In other words: How badly do you ache for this Cup?
You win nothing in sport without resolve, discipline, a desire for a scrap. It’s Anil Kumble strapping his broken jaw and bowling. It’s Tiger Woods, whose intensity seems to burn out of his pores, admitting he wills the ball into the hole. It’s Michael Jordan, his toe swollen and attempts to pad his shoe failing, telling the trainer to forget it. “Give me the pain,” he snarled, and took his team to victory.
Skill is always pleasing, but it is the character of men, revealed in the inferno of competition, that is truly beautiful. Great teams are easily recognized: They’re the ones salivating like Pavlovian dogs at the mention of battle.
In recent times, Australia’s cricket team has smelt of menace, wearing a halo made of barbed wire. Many teams have good weeks; they had a great decade, a consistency born from an armoured self-belief. Sure, the Australians bicker, but their cause cements them.
When asked to explain the secret to his team’s six consecutive wins at the 1999 World Cup, Steve Waugh was quoted in the Australian Psychological Type Review as saying: “It’s called inner strength, belief in your own ability and your teammates. You don’t win tough games if you are disjointed and fragmented.”
Greg Chappell recently said: “It (winning the Cup) gets down to belief.” Conviction, coolness, courage, an unbending faith in their plans and each other, a commitment to a collective cause, all this India requires if it must win. Especially in an endless 47-day Cup, where faith is constantly tested.
Sports psychologist Sandy Gordon, who worked with the Indians once and now the Sri Lankans, says: “This is a very demanding tournament, and you expect as much emotional fatigue as physical.” He knows it’s challenging to “get up” for games, to rise to the emotional pitch a Cup match demands, and then slide down, and take a break, and then lift again. And again.
In such an extended event, Gordon believes it’s not necessarily the best team on the park, but the team best able “to cope with the stressors that will prevail”. Inevitably, teams will have a bad day, when mechanics break down, tactics fail. The fragile side bickers, it wilts, it second guesses; the stronger team, says Gordon, “learns and moves on”, it bounces back. Injuries will arrive, luck will turn, criticism mounts, some days the team shines but the individual fails. All this must be managed.
India has men of fibre; Dravid, who was once told one-day cricket was not his game; Ganguly, who has resurrected himself; Tendulkar, for whom the net is a church. But three men, four, five is not enough. This team, as an entirety, must believe, must stay undefeated in the mind. As Ric Charlesworth wrote in The Coach: “(Big matches) are not won by timid hearts.”
The silk of the stylish Indians we know, but it’s the steel that we need to see.
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