The second Andre Agassi, the born-again tennis cleric not the early-edition punk, was a friend of pain. Every December day he trained brutally, sessions that included running up a hill in Las Vegas, forwards, backwards, six times, 10 times, pausing only to vomit on his road to greatness.
When the year commenced, Agassi was ready. Ready to run to that extra ball deep into a match. This was his edge. Of the eight grand slam titles he won, four came at January’s Australian Open.
Out there in the sweaty universe of the athletic clone, every man a lean, toned, quick duplicate of the next, how do you stand out among the talented gang? You need an edge. An advantage. Something. Anything.
Golfer Se Ri Pak’s father made her spend a night in a graveyard to overcome fear. Ricky Ponting looked to develop a new shot over covers against left-arm spinners for the World Cup. Eric Cantona would practise after practice.
In Australian Rules football this month, players wore radio transmitters that sent information to their teams about distance covered, average speed, heart rates. Eventually, all information will be distilled, and individual training programs altered.
How does India compete in this world? Where is its edge?
India is a generation behind Australia in cricket, but the Australians aren’t satisfied. Constantly, they search for something extra from bowling coaches, throwing coaches, trainers, physios. Then they look in a laboratory.
Marc Portus, who has a degree in patience, is the manager of the sports science unit at Cricket Australia’s centre of excellence. He has five to six people working on “reducing injuries” and “improving performance”. Indian cricket has none.
Victory can arrive from a .05-second-quicker turn in swimming; in cricket, too, stealing time helps, finding a way to gain an extra millisecond. If the run-out camera determines speed in cricket, then the fielder wants to be one frame faster.
So Portus works on fielding strategies. Like, “is it more beneficial for two people to run to the boundary or one?” If there’s a second man, following the first, ready and balanced to throw, is it quicker? Yes.
Portus and his team study fielders positioned, say, at cover, film them, investigate what cues fielders look for as they move, what are they seeing the batsman do that makes them go left or right. And is there a way for the fielder to get to the ball faster and more accurately, to commence his movement even before the ball is hit, to read the play by looking for cues in the batsmen’s feet and the downswing of his arms?
Talking to Portus is akin to taking an exhilarating ride through cricket’s unexplored pathways, a journey into sporting possibility. He and Dr Sean Muller, for instance, have found that superior batsmen start processing decisions even before the ball has left the bowler’s hand. To move early after all is to be ready early.
Great batsmen have the ability to pick up cues, and digest them, able to read what delivery is coming from perhaps just the angle of the bowler’s wrist, or how long the ball is in the hand, or the nature of the arm action. These cues the lesser batsman cannot pick up (all batsmen need to see the ball in flight, but the inferior practitioner needs to see it longer in the air before deciding on his movement).
But Portus is still discovering what precise cues great batsmen are noting that decides their early movement. Batsmen cannot always reveal them because it is a subconscious assessment.
The information, once collected, offers marvellous possibilities. Portus wonders about a future day when young cricketers will face a full-size screen of, say, Lasith Malinga running in to bowl in a virtual reality studio. At the moment of release, the screen goes blank and the young tyro executes his shot.
Has the aspiring star picked the cues correctly, did Malinga’s wrist position fool him, has he misjudged the ball and played the wrong shot? Film will be rewound, feedback presented and, in the studio, one tiny element of greatness will be honed.
Portus is not done. He speaks, almost wistfully, of a time when a ball will actually emerge from the screen. It is a wonderful moment. In one corner of Brisbane, this anonymous man is dreaming of helping build, in some small way, a superior Australian cricketer. His contribution is quiet but it matters. Because if you tire of looking for an edge, you lose your edge.
(Write to Rohit at gametheory @livemint.com)