In the ‘Zone’

Why does hav­ing the right men­tal state mat­ter so much?

The Cricket Paper - - NEWS -

I“ t was my finest mo­ment as a crick­eter,” Nasser Hus­sain said, re­fer­ring to the mo­ment dur­ing the 1997 Ashes se­ries that he stroked Shane Warne’s flip­per for four to reach his first and only dou­ble cen­tury in Tests. It wasn’t the size of his score that made him feel that way, though he was pleased about that, rather, it was the man­ner in which he had played. “I never knew you could bat that well,” Alec Ste­wart told him after­wards. “Nor did I,” the bats­man thought to him­self.

It was one the big­gest matches he’d played in up to then. It was against the best bowl­ing at­tack in the game, led by prob­a­bly the two best bowlers in the game, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Hus­sain had no great rep­u­ta­tion as a bats­man. He didn’t even con­sider him­self world-class, as he re­vealed in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Play­ing With Fire. And yet here he was, stroking the Aus­tralian bowlers all over Eg­bas­ton, like they were a bunch of 12-year-olds.

12.3-8-12-7. Those are Steve Harmi­son’s bowl­ing fig­ures in the West In­dies’ sec­ond in­nings of the 2004 Ja­maica Test. Brian Lara and his men were cleaned up for 47 and Eng­land won eas­ily by 10 wick­ets. The game was be­ing keenly con­tested and was pro­gress­ing at a rather nor­mal clip be­fore Harmi­son brought it to an abrupt end on the fourth morn­ing.

The lanky pacer was un­stop­pable. “I gen­uinely felt there was no-one who could play me,” Harmi­son wrote in

Speed Demons. “I felt ev­ery ball was go­ing to get a wicket. Every­thing had clicked, and there’s only half a dozen times in your ca­reer that hap­pens. The ball was swing­ing, it was quick and it was ac­cu­rate, on the money ev­ery time.”

We speak of­ten of crick­eters be­ing in the “zone”, that place where bat­ting or bowl­ing be­comes ef­fort­less, where mind and body op­er­ates in to­tal har­mony, where every­thing oc­curs as if in slow mo­tion. It is a spell of to­tal ease and clar­ity, where nor­mal anx­i­eties dis­ap­pear.

We see ex­am­ples of play­ers be­ing there in a va­ri­ety of sports. Sci­en­tists have dis­puted the “hot hand” the­ory in bas­ket­ball, but many play­ers and fans still swear by it. And re­cently there have been a few other sci­en­tists who have sug­gested its ex­is­tence. In base­ball, we see it in pitch­ers rais­ing their game to the point that bat­ters can’t even touch them.

Bas­ket­ball great Bill Rus­sell de­scribes be­ing in the zone in Sec­ond Wind, his mem­oir: “It was al­most as if we were play­ing in slow mo­tion. Dur­ing those spells, I could al­most sense how the next play would de­velop and where the next shot would be taken.”

Log­i­cally, we’d as­sume that the great play­ers found them­selves in that space more of­ten than oth­ers. Brian Lara must have been there dur­ing his 277 in Syd­ney, his 213 in Ja­maica, and dur­ing his two world-record in­nings in An­tigua. Curtly Am­brose was cer­tainly in the zone at Perth dur­ing his fa­mous 7-1 spell and in Trinidad where he shot out Eng­land for 46. VVS Lax­man played a num­ber of su­perla­tive in­nings, his 281 against Aus­tralia at Eden Gar­dens, for ex­am­ple, could hardly have been bet­tered.

It is doubt­ful that there is a for­mula for un­lock­ing the gate­way that leads to the zone... Sports­men will prob­a­bly never be able to sum­mon it as they please

But, one need not be a great player to pro­duce in­stances of great­ness. Dur­ing the West In­dies’ 1992-93 tour of Aus­tralia, erst­while West In­dies coach, Phil Sim­mons, then a bel­liger­ent open­ing bats­man, landed in the zone dur­ing an ODI against Pak­istan in Syd­ney. Strangely, it was as a medium-paced bowler that he had his spe­cial mo­ment. In his full al­lot­ment of 10 overs, eight of which were maidens, Sim­mons took four wick­ets for three runs. Ev­ery ball seemed to travel the ex­act path he in­tended. Bats­men the cal­iber of Javed Mian­dad, Salim Ma­lik and In­za­mam ul Haq were be­fud­dled by his ac­cu­racy and the seam and swing he gar­nered, while he out­bowled Am­brose, Pa­trick Patterson and Kenny Ben­jamin, all with much big­ger rep­u­ta­tions as bowlers.

So im­pres­sive was Sim­mons’ dis­play that the West In­dies se­lec­tors thought he had sud­denly be­come a world-class seamer, and so picked him as one of four front-line bowlers for the Test match against Aus­tralia that fol­lowed soon after­wards. He was never able to repli­cate that kind of per­for­mance, of course. Hulk turned back into Bruce Ban­ner. His per­for­mance was noth­ing he had planned for or vi­su­al­ized, and he could not re­pro­duce it. He was as flab­ber­gasted as ev­ery­one else as to how he came to bowl as he did. It left him as sud­denly as it came.

One of Mark Tay­lor’s peakper­for­mance ex­pe­ri­ences came upon him sud­denly too. It came in Peshe­war in 1998 where he made an un­beaten 334. He was hor­ren­dously out of form lead­ing up to the game, he re­calls in Time To

De­clare, but as he got deep into his in­nings he knew he was in a spe­cial place. “I had now reached a point where I hon­estly didn’t be­lieve I could get out. It just wasn’t a fac­tor. It was bloody amaz­ing. I had spent six months of my ca­reer in 1997 try­ing to work out how I was go­ing to get a run…But in Peshe­war, I knew ex­actly where they were go­ing. Even though they had five men on the boundary I could still pic­ture my­self hit­ting a four – and would do it.”

It is very un­likely that any player can place them­selves in that place of op­ti­mal per­for­mance when­ever he or she pleases. One dif­fer­ence, I sup­pose, be­tween the greats and the or­di­nary play­ers is that great play­ers know how to bet­ter pre­pare to en­ter into that phase.

Sachin Ten­dulkar, for in­stance, knew well how to give him­self the best chance of achiev­ing huge suc­cess. In 2004, he de­cided to put away the cover drive in Syd­ney, af­ter con­clud­ing the stroke was get­ting him into trou­ble too of­ten. The re­sult was 613 min­utes at the crease for 241 runs with­out a sin­gle drive through the cov­ers. Even as Lax­man en­chanted the gath­er­ing with drives through the off side and all round the park, Ten­dulkar re­mained res­o­lute.

Play­ers like Vi­rat Kohli also seem able to reach that peak-per­for­mance level more fre­quently than most. In one 10game spurt dur­ing the 2016 IPL, he ran up a stag­ger­ing 778 runs, in­clud­ing four cen­turies and three half-cen­turies at an av­er­age of just over 93. That con­sis­tent level of per­for­mance was un­heard of, es­pe­cially since his golden run was ac­com­plished in the for­mat that re­quires bats­men to en­ter­tain a high-risk game – a game where bound­aries are the pre­ferred and most im­por­tant scor­ing op­tions, where de­fence is of­ten frowned upon, where the dot ball is some­times an abom­i­na­tion. To have recorded that level of pro­duc­tion was sim­ply ex­tra­or­di­nary.

It is doubt­ful that there is a for­mula for un­lock­ing the gate­way that leads to the zone, but it can’t be to­tally ar­bi­trary ei­ther. Sports­men will prob­a­bly never be able to sum­mon it as they please.Yet there may be ways – and dif­fer­ent meth­ods may re­late to dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­u­als – to fa­cil­i­tate its ar­rival. That should be the aim of ev­ery player.

On fire: Steve Harmi­son claimed seven wick­ets in less than 13 overs

Fo­cused: Mark Tay­lor dur­ing his 334 against Pak­istan in 1998

PIC­TURES: Getty Images

Unique: Nasser Hus­sain on his way to a once in a life­time dou­ble hun­dred against Aus­tralia in 1997

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