From calypso to collapso
THE performance of the West Indies team in this year’s World Cup has reached a new low.
Each time we say that things can’t get worse we are proven wrong. The way we folded against South Africa, India, England, and now Pakistan is shocking and disgraceful.
It is true that we beat Ireland, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, but why did those so-called lesser teams play better than we did against the top teams?
Are they fitter than we are? Do they have better physical skills? Do they have superior strategies? Do they possess better mental skills like the capacity to think, concentrate and cope with pressure?
Our team has been in the doldrums for many years and has been trapped in a vicious failure spiral. One serious weakness that consistently shows its ugly head is the team’s inability to cope with any kind of pressure.
In pressure situations it folds like a pack of cards. People who once labelled us as ‘calypso’ cricketers are now calling us ‘collapso’ cricketers.
When sick patients go to see a doctor, he takes a history, does a thorough physical examination, gets certain tests done and then makes a diagnosis. Only then does he prescribe treatment and monitor its progress. If that treatment doesn’t work he might review his diagnosis or change the treatment.
Our West Indies team has been sick for a very long time. The team has had several coaches but I don’t know if any of them have done a thorough and honest examination of the team’s health. They have not yet made the right diagnosis but have prescribed treatments that clearly have not worked.
Their treatments have all been identical except for slight variations in dosage. In medical parlance, this is like giving castor oil to every patient with abdominal pain even though there are many causes and different treatments for that problem.
Success in sport is built on four interconnected pillars – fitness, physical skills (technique), mental skills (control of the mind) and tactics and strategy. If any one of those pillars is weak performance will be shaky.
Unfortunately, players and coaches often contribute to that instability by devoting almost all of their time and attention to fitness and technique and little or no time to strategy and the mental skills. But at the highest levels of sport there is not much difference in fitness and technical skills between the top teams. What then separates those teams?
The behaviour of the West Indies coaches and administrators remind me of a Sufi parable: An old man was walking home one dark night when he saw a young friend on his hands and knees searching for something under a streetlight. “What are you doing?” he asked his friend. “I dropped the key to my house.”
“I’ll help you look,” said the old man. After a few minutes of frustrated searching, the old man asked, “Where exactly were you when you dropped the key?” His friend pointed towards the darkness. “Over there,” he said. “Then why are you looking for it here?” “Because this is where the light is.”
The people who run our game are like that young man. They are searching for the key to success in the light of their knowledge and experience, where fitness and technique lie. But what is holding the team back lies outside the boundaries of where they are looking – in the dark not in the light of their knowledge. That is where they will find the answers to the team’s problems.
During his successful war campaigns Napoleon Bonaparte, the great French general, highlighted the importance of the mind and strategy in the success of his army. He said that in his campaigns psychological strategy and mental control were to action what three is to one.
In my book Winning Ways which has just been rewritten, Sir Garfield Sobers the world’s greatest all-round cricketer and one of the finest cricket brains around said: “The proper use of the mind is the one thing that separates champions from the merely good players. To handle the pressure situations in the game, you must think clearly and sensibly. You will then be able to apply your skills in the best possible way to overcome your difficulties and challenges.
“You won’t get over these problems if you don’t think properly. I have come across lots of players who have had more natural talent than some of the great players, but they never made it because they couldn’t think clearly and sensibly. They didn’t use their commonsense. No matter how good a player you are, you won’t reach the top unless you develop your mind. The top players know how to think, how to concentrate and what to do in tough situations. I feel that one of the most important lessons you can teach anyone is how to approach and handle the many situations he is likely to face. He will then know what to do and how to do it when he encounters them.”
Greg Chappell. one of Australia’s greatest batsmen echoes similar comments: “The reason why I think I have done better than most batsmen is because of the way I use my mind, particularly my concentration. My technique is not as good as that of many other players but I have done better because I learned how to concentrate really well and maintain it under pressure.”
In the last 15 years Lara and Chanderpaul are the only two West Indies batsmen who developed high-quality mental skills and first-class batting strategies. The fact that none of our other batsmen have shown any of that mental toughness is a sad indictment of our system. No wonder our batting is so poor and inconsistent.
Some of the really great cricketers from the past are living right here in the Caribbean. They have the knowledge and the experience to help current players build and strengthen the mental and strategic pillars of success.
Like rabbits in a car’s headlights, the people in charge of our cricket are trapped in the light of the streetlamp searching for the key to West Indies success. But that key and the old players who can bring that key to life are in the darkness of their knowledge, outside the boundaries of where they are looking.
The great brains of our cricket team and administration need to change their beliefs, thinking and strategies to rescue our cricket.
They must understand that at the top level a team’s performance revolves more around its self-image, thinking and concentration than it does around its talent and physical skills. Good physical skills are needed for first-rate performance but excellence in those skills does not mean that the right ones will be chosen or executed during the heat of battle.
Our players must now take full responsibility for their development and performance and learn how to concentrate, cope with pressure and think for themselves.
They must get to know themselves better and be honest with themselves – dishonesty with self is psychological fraud. They must also stand on their own feet, work out their problems on and off the field and stop behaving like rebellious or obedient children with the Board, their coaches and their representatives.
In the last few years West Indies cricket has taken a worrying and potentially dangerous turn. The thinking that is needed to play cricket is very different from the thinking that is required to pass academic examinations.
The fact that so few academics and scholars ever excel at cricket is evidence of that. Cricket is not supposed to be an academic or intellectual exercise. The coaches and administrators must wake up also and start thinking for themselves. And they must get off the path that they have been lured to follow.
Bill Russell of the Celtics, probably the greatest basketball player of all time once said of team success, “The main difference between great teams and good teams is not physical skill but mental toughness. That is how well a team can keep its collective wits under pressure. Teams that can do this under the greatest pressure will win most of the time. Heart in champions has to do with the depth of their motivation and persistence, how well their minds and bodies react to pressure. It is concentration – that is, being able to do their best under maximum stress, fatigue and pain.”
The champion West Indies cricket teams under Lloyd and Richards had all of those qualities and more. They had the cricket intelligence to dominate world cricket for fifteen consecutive years. One might ask if any of our current players have any of that cricket intelligence?
•Dr Rudi Webster is a noted sports psychologist and was West Indies team manager in the Kerry Packer days.