Ashes to Ashes
Cricketing news has been filled talk of "momentum" over the past few weeks as the struggle for the Ashes urn seesaws wildly. When England handily beat Australia in the first Test many pundits were quick to point out their carefree, almost cavalier, attitude and wrote off the Aussies who were seen as an ageing team with an inability to adapt to foreign conditions. Then we went to Lord's where, to put it bluntly, Australia flogged England. After such a crushing defeat, it was hard to see England rebounding, and people started talking about the momentum now being with Australia. Great theory, but not quite borne out by the result in Edgbaston! So, what exactly is going on?
The love of money
I was having a discussion about this over the weekend. I have always contended that sport is about more than physical abilities, but comes down to mental strength. Of course, all sports require a basic level of skill, but once we start talking about professional, elite level athletes, differences become a matter of degree rather than huge gaps. There are exceptions to this rule. Think Bradman or Babe Ruth or Lindrum. But you can safely assume that to get to the highest level you need to be of a certain standard.
What we are seeing in the Ashes right now are not two teams separated by a vast gulf of ability or even experience. We are seeing two average sides that are both good enough to defeat the other on their day, wrestling for advantage but without either team being able to consistently dominate. It is here that we see demonstrated that there is something more to sport than mere statistics or quantifiables, something intangible that changes the complexion of a game.
Cricket, more than any other sport than perhaps baseball, is one of statistics. Go to a site like Cricinfo and you can browse the very history of the game, and see batting and bowling averages, number of games and catches, highest and lowest scores, any stat you can think of, it has probably be recorded. But despite this, they are not the sole determiner of victory or defeat. Otherwise we wouldn't bother playing, we would just add up the bowling and batting averages and work out who would win that way. We wouldn't see great upsets like Zimbabwe beating New Zealand, or Bangladesh beating Australia. It's one of the things that makes me love cricket so much, and I am sure I am not alone in this.
So, what is it then that makes the difference?
It's all in your mind
Australia might have been behind the eight ball after losing in the first game, and England buoyed with confidence, but when the Aussies batted and batted on at Lords you could almost see the English shoulders slump. They probably lost the game in that first day and a half because they no longer believed that they could come back and win. In Edgbaston, the English players fed off the support of the raucous crowd. Despite some Australian players' complaints it was no louder or offensive than your average MCG crowd. It just exploited the doubts that it planted in the oppositions mind. With both sides, once that mental balance tipped their way, they were able to run with it.
Neither team experienced a quantum leap, or drop, in ability, talent and skill between those games. What changed was the mindset. And through that, the confidence and equanimity required to execute plans that on another day might have blown away like so much smoke. In this Ashes series the eventual winner will simply be the team that holds onto that mental edge.
Time to step up
Of course, sometimes, through some convergence of time and circumstances, teams do possess enough a skill difference for statistics to be the determining factor. The all conquering Aussie team of the mid nineties through the early noughties were so much better than most other teams on a man for man level that they became almost impossible to beat.
But, I would argue that, even then, a big part of their success was the aura they cultivated, that many teams were already defeated before they walked onto the park. But when opponents refused to give in on that mental level, they were able to give the Aussies a run for their money. Like the Indians in 2001 or the English in 2005. No one could say that statistically either of those sides were better, or even the equal, of the Australians but their belief eroded the confidence of the Australians and damaged their ability to execute their usual plans. There were also plenty of games where Australia was on the ropes, but there self-belief saw them unwilling to give in, and other teams allowed them back into the game through fear of that aura.
Great players understand this, that there are moments in a game where whoever blinks first will lose, and whoever is mentally strong enough to seize the opportunity will prevail. Shane Warne was a great example. He seemed to know when a game was in the balance and wanted to be the one to change its course. In 2005, he nearly took the Ashes away from England through sheer strength of will. It was only because this England, unlike English teams of the past, possessed enough strength of will not to fold that they didn't end up on the winning team.
It's also why players who are arguably more talented than most cricketers, think Graeme Hick or Mark Ramprakash or Shaun Tait, won't be remembered as true greats. When faced with that moment they, for whatever reason, did not have the ability to seize it and bend the game to the will. Likewise, sadly, despite being as beautiful a technician as you will ever see, I think Ian Bell will always be remembered as an under achiever. He was always great when swept up in the vortex of someone like Pietersen, a cricketer who lived for the big moments if anyone did, but not so good at altering a match himself.
Given all this, I think that the result of this series will come down to which side has more belief in itself—and the players that seize their moment to carve their name in Ashes history.
David Goodwin is the Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, On Fire. He is a cricket tragic, having run a cricket club and a cricket association, and attempts to hit sixes and bowl legspin as often as possible
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html