13 November 2018

Mind-games are part of the sporting story

This is the seventh in a series of articles written for THE SUNDAY MORNING under the title 'The Interception'. Scroll down for previous articles.

For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with this ancient Chinese hand game, Rock-Paper-Scissors is played between two people using three symbols. A closed fist is taken to be ‘rock’, a flat hand is ‘paper’ and a fist with the index and middle finger extended in the form of a ‘V’ and pointed horizontally would be ‘scissors.’   

Usually the two players would start with closed fists, tap the fists twice on a flat surface and then pick one of the above three hand positions. Paper covers stone, stone blunts scissors and scissors cut paper. The outcome of any single play would see one player winning or else it would be a draw, i.e, if both happen to have chosen the same symbol.  

It’s a game of chance with a dash of psychology. It’s about trying to get into the opponent’s head based on the choices he/she has made previously.  Mostly luck sure. The point is that in any competition, getting into the opponents head can give you an incredible edge.

In cricket for example, one of the most commonly employed tactics is to sledge. It’s all about throwing the person out of his rhythm. It’s about obtaining distraction. If the opponent is even slightly out of focus for even a fraction of a second, it would be tough to negotiate a wicket-taking delivery. Indeed even an innocuous delivery might prompt him into a rash shot and get out. 

That’s cheap according to some people but it’s part of the game. What is probably more rewarding is to outthink the enemy, so to speak.  

Way back in the early seventies, the Ananda College cricketers got the better of Royal’s star opening batsman, Prasanna Kariyawasam.  At one point, the Royal coach, Col F.C. De Saram had told the Master-in-Charge who was sitting next to him, ‘Colonel’ A.N. Perera (who related the story years later), ‘Kari is going to get out now.’  ‘AN Maama’ was my neighbor. He explained the thinking behind the conclusion.

‘You see, Kari liked the lofted off-drive and lofted on-drive.  They have stationed a long-off and long-on.  He will try going over the bowler’s head.  He will not see the man who is stationed between long-on and long-off because he’s at the edge of the sight-screen because he’s wearing white and the sight-screen is also white.’

That’s what ‘FC’ had said. A few deliveries later, Kari was caught ‘at the sight-screen.’

'AN Maama' told me lots of stories like that. I will recount a couple.

‘It was another Royal-Ananda match. Royal was batting well in the second innings with a decent lead. The match was heading towards a draw. Typically, teams would play safe, declaring only when it was clear that the opposing team didn’t have enough time to chase the set target. FC called Kari and  (T.M.S.) Saldin (the Vice Captain) and said, “I would declare now if I was you.” The boys had been surprised. Ananda had the best batsman in schools, Sidat Wettamuny and the less-than-safe target Ananda would have to chase would be in the realms of the possible. FC asked them to think about it. They did. They returned a few minutes later and said “Sir, we declared.”

‘FC then said, “good, now let me tell you how to go about it. You are worried about Wettimuni aren’t you? I say, he’s worth 50 runs. Target the batsmen at the other end.”

‘Sidat scored a half century, but at the close of play Ananda were 70 odd for 7!.’

The third story was about Ranjan Madugalle. 

‘FC noticed at practice that Ranjan was consistently getting out in the covers. He told Ranjan, “you like that shot don’t you? The problem is, you will get out. So adjust your grip slightly, angle it a bit and the ball won’t go to the fielder. After a few shots, they will adjust the field, moving cover point to take the catch. When they do that, switch back to your normal grip.”’

It’s all about the mind. In team sports you can get into the mind of a single player or the entire team. It’s about getting into their heads. 

AN Maama made a pertinent observation: ‘it’s nice when you get the batsman out playing his favorite shot.’  Confidence, then, easily moves to over-confidence. That makes for complacency. That’s the chink. That’s the vulnerability. You have to get into his head first, obviously.  It’s as useful a trick as messing with his head but far more satisfying. 

Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan never sledged. Vass ended with 761 wickets in international cricket, Murali with 1347.  I don’t know if they played rock-paper-scissors but they were probably conscious of the psychological element rather than relying on luck.