Here is an exclusive report on the importance of mindset in sport from the Indian Express at 6:00 p.m. on April 30, 2022
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“Earlier this week, the ever-evolving internet celebrant toasted Javed Miandad’s last six balls in 1986, and also recalled Chetan Sharma’s waist-high full throw. A few days later, late at night, he was busy glorifying MS Dhoni’s last ball and ridiculing Jaydev Unadkat’s shin-high throw.
The Miandad moment was iconic, it shaped fate, defined the behavior of Indian and Pakistani cricket. In contrast, Dhoni’s four was a routine. It was just another IPL spark in this long T20 season of daily fireworks. Unlike the India-Pakistan Sharjah encounter of the 80s, the Dhoni-Unadkat showdown, in the final moment of the MI vs CSK game, didn’t have the same underlying tension.
What he provided was a reminder that elite sport, despite changing formats and rules, is not always about skill. At the highest level, where most players have been child prodigies as juniors and proven match winners as adults, most top sporting battles are won and lost in the mind.
If anyone bothers to do a detailed review of why the Miandads and Dhonis of the world will always have an edge over the Sharmas and Unadkats, “hours net” would not be a deciding factor.
Experts say the secret of batsmen like Dhoni who most often play through the middle of the ball in slog overs is their ability to “hold their form”. These calm, clinical hitters are praised and envied for their stillness in the crease. The less discussed, and far more important, attribute of their hitter is their stillness of mind.
A study on anxiety in sports conducted on table tennis players raised an interesting observation. When the best paddlers tried too hard to win or were too afraid to lose, they tended to fix their gaze on the ball. This diminished their ability to pick out clues that would give an idea of their opponents’ move and strategy.
The greats of the game always remain aware of the “contextual information” that can be sucked from their opponents. Their thinking process on the playground is too advanced to be confused by the noise around them. They also don’t get what psychologists call “analysis paralysis” – the inability to do things that are otherwise routine but are suddenly difficult to accomplish because of their excessive thinking. Champion athletes keep their heads tight, they don’t let them wander. They occupy it by constantly searching for clues, scanning data, and calculating risks and rewards.
Years after his retirement, tennis legend Andre Agassi shared a priceless observation that made less mortals realize why he was called the greatest serve receiver of all time. It wasn’t about the swing of his racquet, it was about the sharpness of his mind.
His story of how he denied Boris Becker’s booming service was both comical and magical. “If he serves in the court of the devils and puts his tongue in the middle of his lip, he serves either in the middle or in the body. But if he put it aside, he was going to serve well. Agassi wasn’t consumed by the idea of taking on the Becker missile, his brain was working, searching for the clue that would help him strike a winner.
Back to cricket and the Dhoni-Unadkat duel. Watch again and see how Dhoni seemed to have guessed every variation the left arm stimulator threw at him. When Dhoni reached the striker end, CSK needed 16 of the last four balls in the game.
Unadkat, despite the unflattering rating of him on the internet, is a T20 specialist, someone who sparks a bidding frenzy on auction days. He is known to be smart, until he meets someone smarter.
His first ball to Dhoni, thrown over the wicket and traveling diagonally downfield, was stitched and full. The reputable finisher seemed to have anticipated Unadkat’s stock ball. He bludgeoned him hard, above the pitcher’s head.
When “full” doesn’t work, what would a shaken stimulator do next? You don’t have to be a Dhoni to guess it. As expected, Unadkat tries his special slow bouncer. The master seems to have seen it coming. He stays in the crease, plays the horizontal bat shot and the ball sails over the thin leg defender for four.
It ultimately comes down to 4 runs from the final ball. Dhoni didn’t premeditate, try anything stupid, or move into the fold. Destabilizing bowlers by confusing them is not his style. For the last ball too, he does not blink. True to the predictable script, it’s an almost yorker. Dhoni takes it all in and sends it through the fence behind the plaza.
Unfazed by this outpouring of emotions around him, he heads for the pavilion with the casualness of a 9-to-5 office worker returning home after a hard but satisfying day at the office. Such was his triumphant, prosaic walk to the pavilion that the bat in his hand might have passed for a briefcase.
The private man who keeps the world at bay is not one to talk about his heroism. Not Miandad. On the anniversary of his six starts with Chetan Sharma, an old newspaper clipping appeared on Twitter. There was a story from the day after the final where Miandad, sitting in the office of famed Sharjah host Abdul Rehman Bukhari, talked about the six.
“As I paced the field and measured where the men were standing on the line on the opposite side. I had a hunch that Chetan would try to throw the ball a yorker’s length away. What is it? What else could the poor fellow try? I had decided I would just step up a nuance to convert the length if the ball dipped into the blockhole. Got an easy job, got a good full shot. It was easy work to hit him between the middle of the wicket and the long”.
Just replace Chetan with Unadkat in the quote above and you’d have Dhoni talking about his last four ball. Greatness consists in remaining calm in chaos.
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