Thinking like a champion

Updated: 08 July 2013 15:20 IST

The best cricketers in the world all have their own processes. Some will sleep before a game, or have a couple of drinks, or even drench themselves in cold sweat all night. Others will watch a movie or read a book. If you are not strong enough in the head and heart, what's a shrink going to do to change that, I wonder. VVS Laxman says, "The mind is the most important aspect." You either have muscles there or you don't.

Thinking like a champion
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I've never been much of a believer in the role of psychoanalysis, counselling, motivational speeches and the like, in life or in sport. Sure, it could be useful when a 12 year old is picking up the basics and needs guidance. When it comes to sport, I'd go with Ian Chappell, who'd likely say to someone in international cricket: "Here's your cap, the game starts at 11am" and be done with it.

The best cricketers in the world all have their own processes. Some will sleep before a game, or have a couple of drinks, or even drench themselves in cold sweat all night. Others will watch a movie or read a book. If you are not strong enough in the head and heart, what's a shrink going to do to change that, I wonder. VVS Laxman says, "The mind is the most important aspect." You either have muscles there or you don't.

Who am I to argue anyway? I went white each time I faced a leather ball, even though I was a decent tennis ball slogger once. Could a shrink have helped me straighten out my act? Who knows? Suresh Raina's still iffy against short-pitched bowling, isn't he?

However, Ian's brother Greg, as tough a nut as the older Chappell, sees strategy and mental conditioning exercises as the way forward. "I benefited from Rudi Webster when I was playing," said Greg when he brought Webster in to work with the Indian team in 2006. "I believe that he's a very user-friendly sports psychologist because of his hands-on experience with leading athletes. Because of the importance of mental skills, we felt that it was a good time to involve him leading into the World Cup. What he does with each individual will depend upon where each individual is at in his development as a cricketer, person, and where he's at with his mental skills." As it happens, the 2007 World Cup didn't go too well and it's easy to say that Webster, or Greg, may not have been enough to set things right.

Yet, the non-believer that I am, the few interactions I have had with Webster have been supremely enriching. Cricketers who have worked with Webster over the years concur that spending time with him is a crash course in thinking straight, thinking right; most of them say they have emerged better cricketers, and better human beings, after the meetings. And these people range from legends such as Rahul Dravid to relative small-timers such as Laxmi Ratan Shukla.

So, despite the wife's sceptic look, I pre-ordered Webster's Think Like a Champion. And despite myself, I can see why it would be of immense value to any budding sportsperson, cricketer or otherwise. I won't review the book - that is best left to someone not inherently resistant to the subject - but appreciate what Webster has achieved over the years and is trying to achieve with this book. I feel the need even more now that he is uninterested in travelling around the world anymore at age 75 and after a sequence of serious illnesses.

When I spoke to Webster last, in Pune during the 2012 Indian Premier League, he had told me that Think Like a Champion is essentially a series of interviews with some of the greatest cricketers in order to understand their "recipes for success". [You can read about the interaction here]

The ones interviewed are Garry Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Clive Lloyd, the Chappell brothers and, of more recent vintage, Wasim Akram, Jacques Kallis, Rahul Dravid, MS Dhoni and VVS Laxman. The interviews are structured like a questionnaire. And the responses are along expected lines. Is a cricketer likely to say that he doesn't believe discipline is important or that mental toughness is hogwash? But the magic of the book isn't in the interviews. It's in the little words of wisdom that Webster scatters around the pages in his understated way.

For example, Webster tells us of an unnamed Australian batsman, who enjoyed himself when he played attractive shots and hit fours and sixes, but found the rest of the requirements of him boring.

"What percentage of your game is taken up with hitting fours, sixes and playing spectacular shots," Webster asked him.

"About 30 per cent," he replied.

"So you're telling me that you don't enjoy 70 per cent of your game because you find it uninteresting and boring?"

"Gosh, I never thought of it like that," the cricketer replied.

The little things we don't think about are suddenly revealed when someone with an interest in our affairs probes us a little. I suppose it comes down to whether you are welcoming of the concept or not. With the way world cricket, and indeed world sport, has changed and is changing, with the temptations being more and varied than ever before, youngsters do need all the help they can get.

Is mental conditioning the right way? Or is it enough to be good people with the right priorities, looking up to the right role models and steering clear of negative influences? Or is it the former that helps one achieve the latter? One way or the other, there are things to think about and take away from the book - not least the words of champions who try to explain the way their minds worked.

Topics : Cricket VVS Laxman Ian Chappell Greg Chappell
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