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Meltdown at the death: It is just not cricket

30th March, 2016
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MS Dhoni and India were close to bowing out of the Twenty20 world cup. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Roar Guru
30th March, 2016
4

March 23rd 2016, Bangalore. Two runs to get in the last three balls of the WT20 and the chance to knock India out of the World Cup at home.

Unheralded part time bowler Hardik Pandya bowls the last over with the Bangladeshi middle order still at the crease.

The result? In their eagerness to win the game quickly, two batsmen hole out in the deep, Pandya bowls the last ball wide off the crease, and MS Dhoni sprints up to the wicket and runs out Mustafizur Rahman who has set off for a desperate game tying run.

And we have the mother of all meltdowns. India lives to fight another day with the Aussies, who they would defeat to go through to the semis.

Feb eighth 2016, Hamilton. It’s Brendon McCullum’s swansong ODI. He has a good game and scores a swashbuckling 47, but the Kiwis spectacularly collapse, losing five wickets for nine runs chasing 246 against Australia, and getting bowled out in the 46th over.

Jan 20th 2016, Canberra. Chasing 349 to win, India are 277 for 1 with Shikhar Dhawan scoring 126 and Virat Kohli 106, and then it happens. India loses the last nine wickets for 46 runs and the last three wickets in 11 balls for the addition of one run.

India lose the match and suffer the ignominy of going down 4-0 in the five-match ODI series. A meltdown to remember.

June 17th 2014, Mirpur. Chasing 106 to win in an ODI against India, and at 44 for 2, Bangladesh spectacularly collapses for 58 all out, creating several records.

They lose eight wickets for 14 runs, the third lowest runs scored for an eight-wicket collapse in ODIs. They allow India to achieve the lowest score successfully defended by a team after being bowled out. They allow a part time bowler, Stuart Binny, to achieve bowling figures of six wickets for four runs, the best ever bowling performance by an Indian in ODI.

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Clearly, a meltdown of stupendous proportions.

These are hardly the only instances of teams collapsing and snatching the proverbial defeat from the jaws of victory. The history of cricket abounds with such stories. Without trying to single out India as the worst culprit, but just looking at them as an example, several instances come to mind.

Losing nine wickets for 49 runs and being all out for 88 chasing 288 against the Kiwis in 2000. Losing eight wickets for 29 runs and being all out for 91 runs chasing 249 against the Proteas in 2006. And of course the most infamous of them all, losing seven wickets for 22 runs to lose the World Cup semis against Sri Lanka at Calcutta in 1996, the match that effectively launched Sri Lanka as a top tier cricketing nation.

So what is it about these meltdowns? How can top teams with players in form and with an enormous reservoir of experience, collapse spectacularly under pressure? Is it just the pressure, is it a lack of application, experience, presence of mind? Or maybe these are just isolated examples in a cricketing world which by and far follows the script of ‘may the better team win’.

Either way, it’s worth thinking about and seeking parallels from the world of sports outside cricket.

April 10th 2011, Augusta. A 21-year old golfing genius called Rory McIlroy enters the final round of the Augusta Masters leading by four strokes, a big margin by any standards. On the first five holes, he misses three easy putts, but still turns for home in the lead.

On the 10th hole however, it all falls apart. Starting with the tee off where he hooks a drive (the ball curved left as he hit it) and it lands on a hill between two cabins where a golf ball had never been seen to land before, it rapidly goes south, with Rory taking seven strokes to do a Par 4. He eventually makes a hash of the next three holes to finish 10 strokes behind the winner, South African Charl Schwartzel.

Sports lexicon has something called the Steve Blass Disease – a term which is used now for all kinds of sports choking. Steve Blass, who played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was one of the most feared pitchers in major league baseball.

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He made his debut in 1964 and terrified batters for the next eight years. But then over a course of a few weeks he completely lost his ability to throw (and he had no physical problem), but before every game, he was petrified.

This lasted for the rest of his shortened career.

But Blass was hardly the only one. There was Jimmy White, the snooker player. He lost six snooker world championship finals and in 1994 muffled a simple black put which would have given him victory against Stephen Hendry.

Wimbledon 1993, saw Jana Novotna, up 4-1 in the final set against Steffi Graf, double faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulders of The Duchess of Kent.

So what is it about choking or about meltdowns? Clearly, it happens across individual and team sports, across nationalities and situations, and from the Golf greens of Augusta to the green top of Eden Gardens.

It cannot all be explained by match fixing or drugs or betting or incompetence. After all these are sportsmen at the peak of their physical prowess, in most cases, representing their country with pride.

The answer appears to be a simple fact, that we are finally human beings. Research suggests that choking affects most of us at one time or the other – it can be at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, and most often, when we are on public display.

When we walk, we don’t think about we move our body. But when we walk up on stage to receive a certificate or an award, we are acutely conscious of every step. And what puts the pressure is the negativity associated with failure.

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If you win a match for your country, you are a hero. If you choke, and lose, you lack courage and are a failure.

So when it comes to the crunch, and victory is in sight, you want to get it quickly. And in trying to do so you lose two wickets, and then you lose two more, and before long you are so panicked that you have a spectacular team collapse like any of the above.

Or you lead 4-1 in a Wimbledon final, and in your anxiety to finish the match you start trying harder, and you double fault your way to a loss, and give up your only chance to be a champion.

So choking is human. These are young men and women. They are young men and women who get paid well. But like all human beings, they can fail at crucial moments, and they do.

This doesn’t make them lesser human beings, and this certainly doesn’t make them cheaters and match fixers. Let’s lay off them, take the media and social pressure off, and let them come back to entertain us again.