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IPL: The mental skills that players need to succeed

Delhi Capitals’ Shane Watson discovered the secret late in his career; now he helps young players learn how to be the best versions of themselves

Delhi Capitals assistant coach Shane Watson (left) with skipper Rishabh Pant.
Delhi Capitals assistant coach Shane Watson (left) with skipper Rishabh Pant.

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Delhi Capitals (DC) had to beat Mumbai Indians (MI) in their last league game to make it to the Indian Premier League (IPL) playoffs. And they appeared to be on course. MI’s asking rate had climbed to 12 an over when their last hitter, Tim David, arrived at the crease halfway through the 15th over.

He nicked the first ball he faced from Shardul Thakur. The bowler and wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant appealed strenuously for a caught behind, but the umpire didn’t raise his finger. Skipper Pant seemed interested in reviewing the decision but changed his mind. He said later that fielders nearby felt there was no nick. David then smashed 34 in 11 balls to slay Goliath. DC exited IPL 2022.

Common sense dictated that DC should have taken that review. They had two reviews in hand and only five overs and two balls left in the game. Even the slimmest chance to get rid of a potential match-winner had to be grabbed. And this was a case of the ball passing close to the bat and Pant being right behind to see it. But he asked everyone around, instead of thinking calmly and taking charge.

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Eventually, he blundered under pressure as the 15 seconds ticked by. You could argue there were other reasons as well for DC losing that game. But this was the moment of truth and Pant faltered.

It’s doubly shattering for him because he had a similar mental aberration at crunch time in the last season. He had led DC to the top of the league table after taking over the captaincy from the injured Shreyas Iyer. Then, in the qualifier against Chennai Super Kings (CSK) for a place in the final, he gave the last over to a medium pacer with a mediocre record in the IPL, Tom Curran, instead of South Africa’s pace spearhead, Kagiso Rabada, who had an over left. M.S. Dhoni relished the opportunity to smash Curran for three boundaries and win the qualifier with two balls to spare.

It’s hard to think straight at moments like these in the high octane environment of the IPL, especially for a captain. Even the most successful IPL captain, Rohit Sharma, gave the last over of a game this season to medium pacer Jaydev Unadkat instead of one of his overseas pacers. Again, it was Dhoni who smashed the last four balls for 16 runs to snatch the victory from MI. Sharma forgot Dhoni’s strike rate of over 200 against the hapless Unadkat who had dismissed Dhoni only once in his career.

Both Sharma and Pant read the game well, which you can see from their moves on the field, interactions with bowlers, and success rate. Pant made DC a table-topper in his very first stint as an IPL captain, and his 89 not out on the final day in Brisbane, Australia, last year to give India their most famous Test victory required enormous skill, courage and composure. And yet, he makes his backers tear their hair out in frustration a bit too often for their liking. This is where the mental side of the game comes into focus.

As DC’s new assistant coach, Shane Watson, put it in an interview with Lounge before the fateful MI game: “One thing you’ve got to remember about Rishabh is that he’s only 24. And most cricketers are able to pull the pieces together from a technical point of view, the gameplan, and the mental side of their own game only in their late twenties.”

The Aussie all-rounder himself discovered the secrets of mind control late in his career, after going into a freefall. A freak incident on the cricket field in late 2014, where Aussie Test prospect Phillip Hughes got hit by a bouncer that claimed his life, triggered Watson’s downward spiral. He was standing at first slip, and was so shaken his performances nosedived in 2015. He lost his place in the One Day International (ODI) and Test sides and was thinking of ending his career. “I was 34 and performing nowhere near my best. I was about to retire,” recalls the all-rounder, who slid from being a star in the Shane Warne-led Rajasthan Royals (RR) team that won the inaugural IPL title in 2008.

Then an Australian race car driver, who had tackled demons of his own, introduced Watson to a mental skills guru in the US, Jacques Dallaire. “He knew nothing about cricket. But he knows how the mind works because he has worked with so many high-performance people,” recalls Watson. This was transformative. “I finally understood how to get out of my own way.”

“I have been around professional cricket since I was 19 but mental skills are just not taught. Until I was 34, I never got taught these really simple things like how to control your mind, and have it focus on the right thing at the right time,” says Watson.

This becomes crucial in high pressure match situations when the mind starts racing as it juggles with multiple elements and impulses. “Most of us don’t listen in to what’s being said internally, especially negativity, and redirect it to something more productive. You have to control that script,” explains Watson. “I was not good at exercising that control over the internal dialogue that’s always going on in your mind. The game environment or the situation in my life dictated how I thought.”

It’s one thing to understand the concept. Putting it into practice and getting better at it takes time. Watson had a good run in IPL 2016, especially with the ball, taking 20 wickets for his new franchise, Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). But in the final against Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH), he gave 24 runs in the last over and 61 runs overall in four overs without taking a wicket. It proved crucial in RCB’s narrow loss by 8 runs in the end.

You might ask what skipper Virat Kohli was thinking when he gave the last over to a bowler who was having an off day, but Watson blames himself squarely. “I still feel really bad because it was RCB’s opportunity to win a first title and I was a big part of that not happening. It was one of the worst games I have played even though I was doing everything I could to be at my best.”

He had to again redirect his negative thoughts after the 2016 fiasco. Finally, in IPL 2018, everything came together again for Watson, who realised he had been overthinking in 2016. He learnt how to cruise with his mind on neutral, so that he could apply maximum mental energy and take accurate decisions when required. He made an unbeaten 117 in the 2018 final against his 2016 final nemesis, SRH. The beneficiary was his last franchise, CSK.

The moral of the story is that Rishabh Pant need not despair. He’s young and will learn from the lows he has experienced. And in DC coach Ricky Ponting and his assistant, Shane Watson, he has the best guides to grasp the mental skills that players and captains need to succeed in the IPL.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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