International sport is played out as much on the field as between the ears. Beyond a particular level, just in terms of skill sets and abilities, the top teams and the top individual players don't suffer in comparison. It is in how they handle pressure, or more significantly, whether they allow themselves to be too affected by pressure, that determines which side of the result fence they find themselves in.
The higher the stakes are, the greater are the chances that every effort will be made to wrest an advantage over the opponent, however minuscule it might appear. Mind games are an integral part of sport at the top level; some indulge in it deliberately, others realise over a period of time how, without even trying, they have some kind of a hold over their rivals.
One of the more intimidating sights in sport is that of the New Zealand rugby team going through its pre-match routine. With the opposition 15 looking on wide-eyed, bemused and slightly unsettled, the All Blacks perform the 'haka', an energetic Maori war dance full of power and aggression that sends out a clear message to the opposition. Over time, teams might have gotten used to this unusual method, but there is no disputing the fact that every time the 'haka' is brought out, there is a certain chill that goes down the opposition spin.
Not unlike the sight of Vivian Richards striding out to the batting crease. Upturned collar, the vigorous chewing of the gum, a swagger that seems to ask the eleven men in the opposition, 'And what exactly are you doing on the same field as me?' As a routine, it invariably succeeded in fulfilling its mission. Richards always began with a distinct mental advantage over his opponents, and if he did get off to a start, pity the bowlers, especially if they dared to so much as make eye contact.
Richards seldom uttered a word - it wasn't as if sledging was uncommon those days, certainly not with the Australians having perfected it into a fine art - but then again, he didn't need to. Aggression isn't about mouthing profanities and letting loose a string of expletives. One need not look beyond Richards to understand that aggression can manifest itself in body language. The power of silence is grossly underestimated; no one used it with more telling effect than the West Indian teams of the '80s, with their destructive array of fast bowlers and their glittering batting line-up.
No one ever heard Andy Roberts, or Michael Holding or Joel Garner or Malcolm Marshall, and later Curtly Ambrose, cuss and swear and let verbals fly. Somehow, it's impossible to even conjure a mind's vision of a Roberts swearing or a Garner spewing verbal venom. To them, sledging was a waste of time and energy; the West Indies of that era identified use of the lip as a sign of weakness. Instead, they concentrated on working teams over with chilling stares and the occasional scary gesture - such as making a sign of the cross on the batsman's forehead - all of which were, of course, followed by otherworldly cricketing accomplishments.
In recent times, though, the fine line between intimidation and boorishness, between aggression and petulance, has become completely blurred. No longer do sportspersons believe that aggression is internal; the need for it to express itself verbally has become over-riding, but even today, there are enough examples of people imposing their authority on the opposition without so much as parting their lips.
So overwhelming is the aura, so all-pervasive the dominance, that quite often, matches are already lost in the locker room, long before the players take the field. Roger Federer had such a strong hold over Andy Roddick that the American, however competitive he might have been, was largely determined to not embarrass himself while playing the great Swiss. Yes, Roddick did spill his guts on court, but seldom did he have the conviction that he had what it took, playing at his best, to overcome Federer, also at his best. Now, that is intimidation. Without talking. Without swearing. Without putting your opponent down.
Team sport is an entirely different prospect. Not unlike Dutch courage in some ways, the presence of four or five or 10 or 14 other individuals on the same side of the fence emboldens men mainly, and occasionally women, to shed their inhibitions, if any, and take the fight to the opposition verbally. Whether they are given lessons in sledging during their formative years is a matter of conjecture; suffice to say that they have mastered the art of lip warfare without edifying the sport in any manner.
But even in this time and age, there are individuals who stand head and shoulders above the rest through sheer presence. No one brings as much fear factor with him in modern cricket as Chris Gayle; already a towering presence, his mere arrival at the batting crease triggers a buzz in the stands, and a sense of foreboding and impending doom within the opposition.
Gayle glides in to the middle - he never gives the impression that he ever makes an effort - with that beast of a willow in his hand, and strides straight to the middle of the pitch. He stands there, surveys his territory, the headcloth flapping in the wind under the helmet, the eyes focussed and slightly scary, the bat coming down in sweeping arcs. It's impossible not to feel the heat. World cricket's most destructive batsman marking out his territory. Who said fear is not the key?
It helps that Gayle is an authoritative physical presence, like Matthew Hayden before him was. When Hayden was on the charge, bowlers and umpires feared for their physical well-being. Men like Gayle and Kevin Pietersen and Shane Watson have kept that tradition going, but cricket isn't about just big batsmen and giant bowlers calling the shots.
At his peak, Sachin Tendulkar drove fear into the hearts of the opposition bowling just as Brian Lara, another small man, did. And it wasn't just the quicker, faster, bigger bowlers who carried that aura around them. Think Shane Warne, think magician. He would bamboozle and bedazzle and embarrass, and more than occasionally humiliate you, as Daryll Cullinan will testify.
They come in all shapes and forms, unique packages with special skills and unmatched talent. They also come with an inherent warning: Rile me at your own peril. Fear indeed is the key.