Cricket, the Great Mental Game

keith millerCricket is the second most popular sport in the world, after soccer. It has two billion fans and is played by 120 million people. Cricket is a major sport in at least ten countries, while its governing body has 105 member nations. The game began in England and today is primarily played there and in former British Empire countries.

Many people don’t get cricket. Even in countries where it is popular many consider cricket as exciting as watching paint dry. These people don’t understand the game. In some sports—say hockey, soccer or basketball—the physical aspect of the game dominates. In Test cricket, the five-day version of the game, although physically hard and challenging, the mental aspect dominates. Playing cricket demands great mental skill that trains players well for life.

Any sport that a person, especially a child, enjoys and which adds to human efficacy and happiness is a good sport. This article, however, will solely investigate the mind virtues of cricket. Although there are now three major forms of the game (Test, one-day, and twenty20), I will focus on the longest and hardest form, five-day Test cricket.

The physical aspect

All sports by their nature have a physical component. Cricket is a physically demanding and at times dangerous sport. During a Test match, a cricketer’s body is sorely tested and stressed for up to thirty hours. A bowler, for instance, needs prodigious physical skill and a strong body. As well as fielding, he can bowl twenty-five overs a day. English captain Mike Brearley reports in The Art of Captaincy that Alec Bedser “would regularly bowl over 1,200 overs per season”.(1) In addition to many practice sessions, contemporary bowlers compete throughout much of the year and suffer relentless wear and tear to shoulders, backs and legs.

Batsmen need strength and stamina. An in-form batsman can bat all day. That is six hours of cutting, hooking and driving a ball around a 360-degree oval with a 150-yard diameter. A batsman perpetually bolts up and down a twenty-two-yard pitch. His reflexes must be lightning quick to play balls approaching him at up to ninety-five miles per hour and to master spinning balls twisting at sharp angles off the pitch.

The most dangerous act in cricket is a batsman facing a bouncer. A cricket ball is 5.5 to 5.75 ounces of leather, string and cork and can be bowled at speeds up to ninety-five miles per hour—at the batsman’s body. Cricket history is bloodied with examples of teeth knocked out, jaws and hands broken, hearts thumped, and skulls fractured from batsmen taking fast balls to the body. Brearley notes that “Physical courage, allied to skill, plays a part in many games and sports; I see no reason why it should cease to be one of the qualities called for in batsmen … cricket without bouncers, and without a streak of intimidation, would be an impoverished game.”(2)

And do not forget that cricket is a summer sport often played in burning sun and heat searing into the forties.

Test cricketers need to be fit, strong and brave men.

The mental aspect

Sport fans often don’t appreciate the mental side of sport. Shannon Miller, a US Olympic gold medal gymnast, once stated, “In the Olympic Games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.” (3)

The importance of the mind in sport is especially not understood by people who disparage cricket as dull. Test cricket is a long, complex game with many variables that a player has to understand, calculate and deal with. This makes cricket a potentially exciting mental game for player and spectator. And by mental, I mean the full range of mental attributes, including cognitive aspects such as mind-body integration and attitudes about self and the world.

Let’s look at some key variables a cricketer’s mind must deal with. Imagine training your thinking to deal with the following ever-changing variables:

Each cricket ground you play on will have its own peculiarities, such as its boundaries, the size of its sightscreens, and even if seagulls land on it. Lord’s has an eight-foot-eight-inch slope.

Every ground is open air, with its own conditions of sun, light, cloud, heat, wind and rain. One ground could be humid, so swing bowling might predominate. Another ground could be dry, so spin bowling could be preferred. Every pitch is different, and each is prepared in a slightly different way with regard to its length and amount of grass and its watering and rolling. Some pitches will be prepared to be green and bouncy, others brown and flat. The most critical variable in cricket is the changing state of a pitch during a game. As a pitch changes, a ball bounces and turns from it differently, often unpredictably and at times dangerously.

A bowler confronts many variables. He may face right or left-handed batsmen, bowl over or around the wicket, aim at different stumps or body parts. The width of his crease gives him many angles to bowl from. He must constantly change where to place his fielders for the best catch opportunities. A bowler has many choices of the type of ball he can deliver. There are at least ten types of spin balls (such as googly, leg-break, doosra), and eight fast balls (such as leg cutter, yorker, outswinger). All bowlers must vary the line, length, speed and bounce of their deliveries to surprise and trick a batsman. Two bowlers work in tandem, forming partnerships that complicate their work as well as that of the opposing batsmen. A bowling duo, for example, could barrage a batsman with two pace attacks to intimidate him or use pace and spin to rattle his thinking. Captains, bowlers, wicketkeepers, batsmen and fielders must understand all types of balls and their peculiarities.

And all players need to understand how a ball changes during its eighty overs. A ball is shined by the bowler, cut by the pitch, nicked and smashed by the bat, wet by the rain, and thumped again and again into a wicketkeeper’s gloves. Cuts and nicks on a ball, for example, influence its flight and how it moves off the pitch. As a ball gets softer during a game, it bounces less.

Because a batsman can hit the ball 360 degrees around himself, he must master at least twelve orthodox shots and when to use them. He must place his shots in gaps between players who often change position. He is constantly responding to bowlers being right- or left-arm, coming over or around the wicket, using a variety of deliveries. Each new over he faces a bowler from a different end. One over he’s attacked by thunder balls from Jeff Thomson; the next beguiled by spin balls turned at remarkable angles by Ashley Mallett.

Elite cricketers travel the world to ply their trade. Humid England, hot Mumbai, desert Dubai, wet Brisbane. They must learn to conquer England’s damp and soft pitches, Australia’s fast and bouncy tracks, India’s dusty and breaking turfs. The ball swings more in England than in Australia but bounces higher in Australia. They must adapt to different equipment. The English, for example, favour the Dukes ball, the Australians the Kookaburra. The Dukes ball has higher stitches so it plays differently coming off the pitch than the Australian ball.

Consider the mental challenges the Australian team faced in England during the 2015 Ashes series. Changes in three variables—pitch, air (humidity) and ball (Dukes)—compared with playing in Australia rattled the Australians, who failed to adapt their thinking to these new conditions and were flogged in three of the Tests.

Cricket in essence is a game of mental challenges. An important part of playing the game is juggling a great number of variables. In order to prevent his mind becoming overwhelmed by this complexity, a cricketer needs to use such mental skills as concentration, integration, multi-tasking and flexible thinking. There are many other important mental skills that a cricketer needs to play cricket well. To some of these we now turn.

Mental skills that cricket demands

Playing cricket develops a range of cognitive skills that are important to success in the game and in life generally. A crucial life skill is to define a purpose and then devise a strategy and enact tactics to achieve that purpose. The purpose of a professional cricket team is to win and entertain. Although a cricket match pitches the thinking of one team of eleven against the thinking of another team of eleven, the game involves tactical duels, the most dramatic of which is between bowler and batsman. A bowler, whose purpose is to get the batsman out or to slow his run-rate, can use strategies of brute force or, more often, deception and cunning to achieve his goal. When using deception, the bowler is trying to out-think the batsman. At the same time, the batsman is devising ways to score runs off the bowler or break his will and confidence by dominating him. Each bowler and batsman studies his opponent’s strengths and weakness and avoids one and plays the other. This takes careful thinking, nerve and skill.

The former Australian batsman and captain Steve Waugh gave this example of a productive one-on-one Australian strategy:

Back in 1989 we developed a strategy against Graham Gooch where we employed two short mid-wickets to encourage him to play across the line, to hit the ball towards the gap at square leg. Consequently Terry Alderman trapped him numerous times LBW and more significantly wore him down mentally to the point he made himself unavailable towards the end of the series, which signalled a significant victory for our planning and execution.

Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar devised this strategy against high scoring Australian batsmen Adam Gilchrist: “The best idea was to get him out early. The best idea was to bowl round the stumps and reverse it into him. Otherwise he could hit almost everything else.” (5)

Consider these examples of a batsman’s tactical thinking against a bowler: A batsman could rattle a bowler by driving his first ball back at the bowler’s head, forcing him to duck and lose confidence. Or, more subtly, a batting duo could only hit singles, so the bowler has to deliver to a different batsman each ball, making it harder for him to focus on one player’s weaknesses.

Strategic thinking can also be employed against a team. During the run-up to the 2015 Ashes, the former Australian bowler, and current coach in England, Jason Gillespie revealed an intriguing strategy for England to use against the Australian team:

I saw no glaring weaknesses in the Australian team. Their batting is sound, the seam bowling is quality, the spin is very good but the opposition still need to find a way in. So I looked at the ages and thought England could target that. They have ten players over thirty years of age; how can England use that to their advantage? So if I was England coach, I’d keep those guys out there for a long time.

Problem-solving is another necessary mental skill in cricket. Unlike many sports, cricket demands thinking over long periods about ever-changing problems such as the many variables discussed earlier. The key problem that needs to be solved during a game is your opponent’s skill. A simple example is offered by Mike Brearley, who once was challenged with the task of bowling out the obdurate tail-ender Dennis Lillee. Brearley finally reasoned a solution: bowl straight at him. (7)

Shoaib Akhtar said: “A smart bowler reads the batsman’s problem, their footwork, faults in their techniques, and the pressures that the batsman is going through.” (8) More specifically, he added, “I used to check their footwork. Hayden was charging at me. I bowled a couple of bouncers, and I could see his feet were not charging at me. I knew that. I trapped him.”

Of his one-on-one battles with batsmen, Akhtar noted: “It is not a battle of egos. It is a battle of talents. I want to prove my brain is working better at that time than his. You have to think before he thinks … When you are running in and someone charges at you, he is asking you to think more.”

One-on-one duels in cricket are great mind combat, especially when bowler and batsman are of equal skill. West Indies captain and all-rounder Sir Garfield (Garry) Sobers remarked

in Test cricket, some people find it very boring when batsmen are finding it difficult to score runs quickly, but the real lovers of the game find it fascinating when there’s a duel between bat and ball. That’s one of the important things especially at Test level. (9)

It has been said that a good Test match, as Sobers indicates here, with its back-and-forth strategising, is like a chess match.

Playing cricket demands short- and long-term thinking. A bowler, for example, must think about the next ball, about an hour ahead when impending rain will change the pitch, and about a month ahead regarding his bowling tactics on a different ground. Don Bradman once stated that “Cricket in no sense evolves around mechanical accuracy. It continually calls for flexible judgment.” (10)

Mike Brearley noted earlier that cricketers need courage. Courage is the mental choice and skill of keeping strength of mind. In sport, this is the bravery to keep your reason when under fire and pressure, to stay focused on the essential, as Greg Chappell might say. Cricketers must stand the pressure of millions watching while eleven blokes are trying to crush them, the game and the series are on the line, and they must perform at their best. Cricketers need great mental strength not only to stay focused during the long battle of a game but also to keep thinking clearly to conceive new ideas to attain victory. All great enterprises, sport included, are brought to success through courage of mind.

Mental focus and stress

When an individual has a great purpose with great obstacles there is great stress. The length and complexity of a cricket game greatly test a player’s mind. He must learn to deal with this.

Part of the complexity of cricket is that players have multiple roles in a team. All must field, at least four players generally bowl. Six players at least are the batting lineup. Some batsmen are talented bowlers or are called upon to bowl when the lead bowlers need a rest or the captain needs a tactical change in the type of bowling. Many wicketkeepers bat expertly. Wearing so many hats and doing such hard physical and mental work for much of the year adds greatly to a player’s stress and tiredness. As do heat, body wear, failure, fan abuse and media scrutiny. Don Bradman once wrote, “It is extremely difficult to maintain a light-hearted aggressive spirit of batsmanship for years on end when playing cricket almost every day.” (11)

Look at what mental pressure or tiredness did to Australian captain and batsman Michael Clarke during the recent Ashes series. Seeming to have lost his focus, Clarke broke the cardinal rule for batsmen by, as Ian Chappell reports, “not watching closely the ball out of the bowler’s hand”. (11b)

Because of Test cricket’s five-day length and great unpredictability, cricketers have at least one anxiety unique to them: a batsman, except for the openers, never knows with any certainty when he will bat. A number three batsman, for example, will be padded up ready to rush onto the field from the first ball, but he could be waiting minutes or great lengths of the day to do so. Further, because a batsman bats so few times, twice at most during a match, it is important to the success of his team that he score many runs. A batsman will naturally be anxious not to get out early and especially not to be cursed with the greatest of failures, getting out for a duck.

Of course, one stress greater than five days of hard mind and body combat comes when a team is skittled out for a low score. Such a failure puts great pressure on a team’s bowlers to do likewise to the opposing team. If they fail, the team’s batsmen are pressured to get a high score in the second innings, otherwise defeat looms and batsmen (and bowlers) may be dropped from the team.

That batsmen need to score stacks of runs is just one game aspect that demands that players focus at intense levels. How can an elite sportsman focus and strain his mind over a thirty-hour period? He can’t. He has to learn to use his mind efficiently.

Garry Sobers had this to say about concentrating as a batsman:

Early in my career, one of the ways of keeping concentration through long innings was when the bowler was bowling you concentrate, as soon as it goes to the keeper and the bowler is walking back to his mark, that is the time a batsman should relax. That’s when you find a lot of players are concerned about a ball that’s beaten them, and they’ll stand there thinking about it and by the time the bowler turns to bowl again, they’re still thinking about it and then they find when the bowler starts to run up, that’s when their concentration lapses.

For me, as long as I wasn’t out, I never thought about it. After that I would rest, or walk down the wicket and “garden”. There was nothing wrong with the wicket, you see it so often, and it helps batsmen to relax, and keep their concentration. You take your mind off the bowler only when he turns round. When he starts to bowl, then you put on your thinking cap again. You must always have that relaxing period where there’s nothing happening. You must forget about what’s gone. That’s what I used to do to keep my concentration over a period of time.(12)

Australian batsmen and captain Greg Chappell makes a related point:

Concentration is the ability to focus on what is important at that moment … my practice sessions became a contest with myself to see how well I could manage the conflicting messages in my head. Training was no longer an exercise in polishing my technique, but a mental exercise in engaging with the bowler at the appropriate time. (13)

While batting, Chappell’s solution was similar to Sobers’s: “I chose to train myself to concentrate for one ball at a time.”

Chappell then makes a fundamental point about the mental aspect of cricket:

At an elite level, the challenge for coaches is to understand that this mental training is the most important thing that a batsman has to learn. For a batsman to turn potential into consistent performance, he must first learn the “inner game” of cricket, which is the ability to keep his mind from wandering from the key issues.

Chappell also stresses the larger point that the mind (like the body) has to be trained. Chappell and Sobers are highlighting that we all need to learn how to use our minds, to control our thinking and focus, and to understand how to lessen our mental stress. All these skills are important to life.

Bradman wrote: “The mental strain of Test cricket was the worst. Physical exhaustion without accompanying mental stress can usually be quickly rectified. But together are a different proposition.” (14)

The captain, master of mental combat

On the cricket field, no one needs more mental ability than the captain. Cricket is a captain’s game. The captain makes the key team decisions on the field and juggles many variables, wears many hats. He is team motivator and leader, adviser on team selection. He devises the strategy and governs the tactics his bowlers, batsmen and fielders will use to enact that strategy. He determines the batting and bowling orders. When things go wrong, he is the primary problem-solver. If he wins the toss, he is weather forecaster and pitch reader so he can decide whether to bat or bowl first. The captain is the mind of a team.

A captain has to integrate many facts, ranging from field, pitch and weather conditions to knowledge of his own and the opposing team. The captain must develop team morale, understand each player’s weaknesses, strengths and preferences. He must advise players, mentor newer team members, and reconcile conflicting player needs. He must judge each player’s fitness and temperament.

A captain must understand the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team, determine what their strategies will be and counter them. He must dominate them so their best players don’t break out, and also try to break their will, concentration and morale. Australian skipper Michael Clarke did this to great effect against the English during the 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia; especially in the way he used fast bowler Mitchell Johnson in short lethal bursts. Johnson destroyed the English top order with his blistering pace and broke their confidence.

Bowler selection and rotation during a game is an important part of a captain’s job. A captain usually has four main bowlers to choose from. He must judge their fitness, confidence and preferences. Do they prefer bowling down the slope, with the wind, and with which partner? Which bowler fits what ball, pitch or weather conditions? And most importantly, the captain must match the bowler’s individual skills against the batsmen at the crease. Maybe batsman Joe has a weakness to the swinging ball, or fears bowler Fred, who has got him out in the three previous matches.

A captain must be a thinker. Mike Brearley wrote, “A captain’s decisions are practical … [and] they often have to be made on imperfect evidence.” (15) Brearley gives this example of the “glorious uncertainty” of cricket: “You move a man from backward short-leg to third slip: you can never know for certain that the next ball will not lob up exactly where your fielder had been.” Brearley then discusses the importance of luck and the danger of over-thinking but ends, “I believe that there are no activities on which thought, properly and appropriately carried out, cannot be a help.”

All captains face the choice of whether to grind a game to a draw or fight for a win, where if things go wrong a loss can result. Going for a win takes a special type of thinker: competitive, imaginative and aggressive. Attacking cricket is about taking reasonable risk, confident that your team can score enough runs and take twenty wickets. An attacking captain pushes his bowlers to take wickets, even if it costs runs, not just to contain the batting team’s scoring. He takes risks by changing his field placements, so his fielders can take catches and not just stop fours. He presses his batsmen to score runs, not just to stay in. At times a captain must stand alone under the standard of his own ideas and order his team to follow his plan rather than their own strongly held beliefs.

Most of all a captain is a strategist. He must create and apply the ideas that will defeat the team attacking his team. During the first game of the 2015 Ashes series, English captain Alistair Cook set attacking fields and had his bowlers consistently bowl an accurate line and length. This strategy controlled the Australian batsmen and forced them to make mistakes. Consider also English captain Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline strategy during the 1932-33 Ashes series in Australia. To contain Don Bradman and other Australian batsmen, Jardine ordered his bowlers to bowl bumpers with seven fielders on the leg side. The strategy curbed Bradman’s scoring and England won the series.

The most challenging one-on-one conflict in cricket is between captains. This is perhaps the most dramatic and intellectual feature of the game. Like a general in war, a captain’s strategic skills must be intensely creative and confident. A captain’s mental skill set includes: thinking flexibly about the changing field conditions, being aware of all the shifting variables, quickly switching contexts and priorities, multi-tasking many demands, observing problems and quickly imagining solutions—all while keeping his nerve under fire. A successful captain out-thinks his opposing captain, pressuring him to run out of ideas or to surrender his confidence. In cricket and in life, victory usually goes to the best and most confident thinker.

Captaining demands great independence. A captain, like any leader (or person) needs freedom to think and to put his thinking into action. This does not mean that a captain would not take advice from others, but that the responsibility for any ideas he uses are his alone. Without being free to act on his own thinking, a captain would become a self-doubting committee man. (Oh, hear me, coaches!) Although not the mental equal of a general at war or a tycoon building a business, a cricket captain when free to think and act on his terms is the Apollo of sport.

For a captain to maintain such a high level of thinking and focus over five days is intensely difficult and draining. When opposing captains are both hard men totally resolved to winning, cricket is a brutal mental conflict. Bradman said of captaining, “I don’t know any game which entails such a severe and prolonged strain on the skipper, but, like the master of a ship, he must exercise control and accept the responsibility.” (16)

Mind over body

We have seen that cricket is a physical game but with a stronger mental component. Cricket commentator Peter Roebuck wrote in It Takes All Sorts, “At the highest level, sport is not a matter of moments but a hardening of the mind and body in concerted effort to reach a peak.” (17) Sport is of great importance to humans because it promotes the ancient Greek ideal of a healthy mind and body and integrates these into one. In this context, what’s especially significant is how playing cricket hones mind-body skills into automatic reflexes. (Training a reflex is essentially integrating mind, body and emotions as one.) Learning these reflexive “instincts” of what to do best in many different circumstances is important to playing cricket and to using one’s mind in life generally.

The most famous example in cricket of an individual training to integrate his mind, body and emotions is the young Don Bradman. All cricketers know the legendary story of Bradman’s childhood, where he played “for ages” hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump against a water tank. (The great Jack Hobbs learned to bat in a similar way.) What was the young Don really doing? He was building a great reflex of integrated eyes, hands, feet and subconscious. More than building great confidence at batting, Bradman was also developing his will-power, focus, ambition and perseverance. And he was uniting his thoughts and emotions to one harmonious purpose. Perhaps even more importantly he was doing all this alone. The young Bradman was building an independent mind, one used to dealing with reality on his terms and making it work for him. Bradman was building the character of the batsman he would become: purposeful, confident and competitive.

Regarding batsmen more generally, let’s look at some mind-body-emotion integrations a batsman needs to face a bouncer. Physically, he needs good eyesight and quick, co-ordinated hands and feet. Mentally, he must take into account many of the variables discussed earlier, such as the bowler’s angle and the bounce of the ball. He must be confident of his ducking and weaving, and if especially gutsy of his hooking of the ball. The well-trained batsman’s mind will do much of this physical and mental work subconsciously, reflexively. But this is learned through years of doing it the right way so his subconscious can do it properly at lightning speed. And if the batsman’s thinking is consistent, he will have no conflict between his thoughts and emotions, his mind will be in harmony.

Shoaib Akhtar explains how the mind controls the body:

This is around 1997, 1998. I had to develop pace. I had to lengthen my arm. What I did was take a brick [rock] and work with that. Then I found heavier balls. Then I found out that if I bowled with heavier balls in practice, I could increase my pace. I started using custom-made balls that were thrice as heavy as the actual ball. I started bowling with those, putting them up to the stumps as fast as I could. I started with a three-pace run-up, and then kept going back and back gradually until I reached the top of my normal run-up. I realized that by doing that I developed muscles in my shoulder, my glutes and my back. The human mind is such a freak, it can tell your body to do anything. (18)

Mental attitudes

Every individual is guided by his beliefs and premises and what might be called his mental attitudes or personal philosophy. In life and in sport, these are reflections of his basic philosophy and are revealed in his ambition, self-esteem, and view of the world. Regarding cricket, I want to focus on the importance of a player’s beliefs about his self and the world. Such mental attitudes are not unique to cricket, but because of the complex mental nature of the game, cricket greatly expresses and tests these attitudes. I will focus on the beliefs of two great artists of the game: Glenn McGrath and Don Bradman.

The New York Times obituary of Bradman noted his greatness in sport this way:

Mathematical analysis of Bradman’s achievements against other major sports stars supports his singularity: he dominated his sport by margins greater than those achieved by other champions.

Among world cricketers, Bradman had a career average of 99.94 runs per innings, a level 30 [actually nearly 40] runs higher than that of his nearest rival even today.

In a recent book, The Best of the Best, Charles Davis, a Melbourne sports statistician, rated stars from different sports by measuring champions who were so far ahead of their rivals that they were in a class of their own, then comparing these margins.

By Mr Davis’s calculations, Bradman led the order of career-long achievement with a 4.4 rating, followed by soccer’s Pelé (3.7), baseball’s Ty Cobb (3.6), golf’s Jack Nicklaus (3.5), basketball’s Michael Jordan (3.4) and football’s Joe Montana (3.1). (19)

Time magazine declared that Bradman was an “Australian icon considered by many to be the pre-eminent sportsman of all time”. (20)

English bowling great Alec Bedser said of Bradman, “If, as it is often claimed, cricket is the game of mental attitudes, the Don had a league start.” (21) Bradman documentarian Jack Egan noted one of these mental attitudes when he discussed Bradman’s “supreme confidence in his ability to see and judge things for what they are”. (22) In 1928, Bradman wrote the following for a young autograph hunter: “If it’s difficult, I’ll do it now. If it’s impossible, I’ll do it presently.” Bradman wrote this just after he had failed in his first Test match. (23)

Bradman later gave a more fundamental insight into his mental attitudes when asked the following question by Jack Egan: “How much of cricket is physical and how much is mental?” (24) Bradman answered:

I suppose a lot of it is mental, although that never intruded in my particular play. In other words, I didn’t let the mental side of it worry me. I always had confidence in my own ability. If I made a mistake, I felt that, nine times out of ten, it was a physical mistake. I had tried to do something, I didn’t get there on time, I was too slow, or something like that. But I’m sure with a lot of players their mental attitude is terribly important. They imagine there are difficulties that are not really there.

When I first heard Bradman say this, I was shocked that he could discount the importance of his mind, but then the meaning of what he had really said struck me: that he had no psychological conflicts when playing cricket, that his body and mind were completely integrated. This integration allowed Bradman to be fully focused and self-assured when playing and so able to play at his peak potential. Bradman’s quote also speaks to his incredible self-confidence.

Glenn McGrath, Australia’s most successful fast bowler, has expressed similar belief in himself:

I am quite a positive person. I always try to see the good in every situation, the good in everybody … Even if we lost a game, I’d work on the positives and then think about where we could improve … I think being physically fit and strong is hugely important for a fast bowler … On the other side of things, you have to be mentally strong as well … You have got to believe you are good enough … I would never give up. I was never satisfied. I’d always want to improve and do better next game. I felt we could win from any situation no matter how bad it was. I’d say I never gave up. I loved what I did … (25)

I never had doubts when I was playing … All the focus was on what I wanted to achieve, and how I was going to go about doing it, and I just went out and did it … Everyone has a conscious decision to make from any situation. They can either look at it from a negative perspective and let it affect them or look at it from a positive one and use that. I love life and I want to make the most of it. I try to live in the now as well.

McGrath’s words reveal a mindset of extraordinarily positive views of his self and the world. Without such attitudes, McGrath could not have achieved what he did. I believe Bradman and McGrath’s mindset can be explained by two ideas of the American philosopher Ayn Rand.

In Atlas Shrugged in 1957, Rand defined self-esteem as man’s “inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living”. (26) Rand considered self-esteem to be a supreme value and a basic requirement of life. If one believes one is efficacious and worthy, one will be motivated to act in life. Conversely, if one believes one is inadequate, one will feel fear and self-doubt, and if one believes one is unworthy, one will be passive or hostile. Self-esteem is fundamental to success in life and in sport.

Peter Roebuck once wrote, “Always it is a question of self-esteem … Cricket is a game played in the mind. Give a man confidence and he will walk among kings.” (27) Echoing Rand, Mike Brearley captured the two essentials of self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-worth, when he wrote, “Cricket is so much a matter of confidence, no one can learn unless he believes he can learn, and that he’s worth teaching.” (28) Using one’s mind in such an intense and focused way as playing cricket demands develops self-esteem and at the same time reflects it. Self-esteem, of course, is not unique to cricket, but as a sport that so challenges the mind and demands so many mind skills, cricket enhances self-efficacy and self-worth attitudes. Those players with the highest self-esteem have fewer inner doubts or conflicts and so can compete at an incredible level of focus, especially when under intense pressure.

Self-doubt and self-deprecation are the antithesis of self-esteem. Brearley wrote the following regarding his inclusion in the English Test team:

I had to struggle in Test cricket with an inner voice which told me I had no right to be there. I would then become more tense, try harder than ever, and play further below par. This inner saboteur undermined even success. (29)

The US writer Carolyn Gregoire has similarly noted

Do your thoughts tend to lift you up—or are you constantly tearing yourself down with an inner monologue of fear, self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness? Great athletes, through all the challenges they face, are able to exert a great deal of control over the way they talk to themselves, and they’ve managed to evict the “obnoxious roommate” living in their heads that tells them they can’t do it. (30)

A poignant example of a failure in self-esteem comes from New Zealand batsman and captain Martin Crowe:

February 4, 1991. Basin Reserve, [Wellington]. I never forgave myself for getting out for 299 against Sri Lanka. Not a week would go by when I wouldn’t be reminded of the one run I craved so much. It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh. I did not know how to let it go, could never laugh at the absurdity of my anger. Ultimately it contributed to a dislike of myself, and to a notion that I was not worthy enough. I was desperate to be liked and I thought scoring big hundreds would suffice. I even thought one more run would be enough. I was staggeringly naive to think so. I missed the entire point of life, how it should be appreciated. (31)

McGrath and Bradman were men without fear or doubt. Their supremely positive view of life reflects another idea of Ayn Rand’s: the “benevolent-universe premise”. Rand and Leonard Peikoff have defined the benevolent-universe premise as the conviction that pain and failure are the “exception in life, not the rule” and “the achievement of values is the norm” … that “Success and happiness are the metaphysically to-be-expected.” (32) A person with a benevolent sense of life is positive and confident about the world. At the deepest level, he fundamentally believes that he can succeed in the world, so during the most challenging situations he will feel confidence. To continue focusing and fighting during a high-pressure game lasting five days, a cricketer always needs to be optimistic. Having a benevolent-universe premise can be the difference between a player succeeding and failing. If a competitor has any doubts, no matter how hidden or deep, about his success being possible, he will undercut himself. He will be less confident in his sense of efficacy and so falter or choke. A person with a benevolent-universe premise will fight longer and more confidently. Believing in a benevolent universe and having high self-esteem are critical to success in life and in sport.

Because cricket does much to develop the mind on many levels—intelligence, thinking, self-esteem, views of the world—it is important to life. Life and sport have significant similarities. Both need a fit body and an active mind, both involve having a purpose, both place reason firmly above the body and emotions, and both use controlled aggression to overcome challenges (often against great odds and conflict with others); and in both life and sport one can attain self-esteem, success and happiness. Cricket is especially good for children because it trains them over the long term to have goals, focus on reality, develop thinking and self-control, deal with conflict and challenge, overcome failure and stress—and especially to earn self-esteem and success.

The difference between life and sport is that in life man primarily uses his mind to attain or create values, whereas in sport the goal is narrower, to win a contest or competition. This does not mean that the vast number of mental skills used in cricket are not applicable to life. They are. Sport helps teach mental skills and attitudes that are practical for life.

The great game

It is no coincidence that cricket as the great conceptual game originated during the Renaissance, grew during the Enlightenment and rose to greatness during the age of capitalism and free trade (1815 to 1914), when the human mind was at its freest in history to reshape the world. And it is also no coincidence that cricket originated and developed in England, then the freest country in the world. Because they were free, the English people were able to create and be rewarded for producing new ideas. Cricket became a symbol of England and as the British Empire’s favourite game it was established around the world.

Don Bradman once wrote that cricket is “our most noble game” and cited the Canberra Times stating, “Without doubt the laws of cricket and the conduct of the game are a great example to the world.” (33)

Cricket, however, as we have seen, is much more than the ethics of fair play, respect for opponents, and good sportsmanship that it is famous for. Peter Roebuck once wrote that “Sport conveys greatness in action.” (34) To make Roebuck’s thought more explicit and more specifically about cricket: cricket conveys the greatness of the mind in action. Cricket’s great gift to the world is how well it trains the human mind and body for success and happiness here on earth. As such, cricket truly is The Great Game.

Scott A. McConnell is a writer/producer/interviewer in Melbourne and Los Angeles


1) Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, p 54

2) Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, 231-32

3) Shannon Miller, in The brain-training secrets of Olympic athletes by Carolyn Gregoire  February 12, 2014.

4) Steve Waugh, Former Australia captain Steve Waugh says winning Ashes is all about attitude    July10, 2013.

5)  Shoaib Akhtar, ‘You have to be mad to be a fast bowler’ Who would know better than the maddest, baddest, fastest one of them all, Shoaib Akhtar Interview by Sidharth Monga  April 2015

6) Jason Gillespie, Ashes: Jason Gillespie Defends ‘Dad’s Army’ Comment, ‘Grumpy’ Aussies See Red   June 29, 2015.

7)  Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, p 21

8)  Shoaib Akhtar, ‘You have to be mad to be a fast bowler’ Who would know better than the maddest, baddest, fastest one of them all, Shoaib Akhtar Interview by Sidharth Monga  April 2015

9) Garry Sobers, ‘You must forget about what’s gone while batting’  September 5, 1998.

10) Don Bradman, Farewell to Cricket, Editions Tom Thompson, Sydney, 1994, p 247

11) Don Bradman, Farewell to Cricket, Editions Tom Thompson, Sydney, 1994, p 296

11b) Ian Chappell, Australia’s failure has revolved around Clarke’s struggle  August 9, 2015.

12)  Garry Sobers, ‘You must forget about what’s gone while batting’  September 5, 1998.

13)  Greg Chappell, curing cricket’s attention deficit disorder, June 1, 2013, The Hindu

14)  Don Bradman, Farewell to Cricket, Editions Tom Thompson, Sydney, 1994, p 249

15)  Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, p 42

16) John Howard, Address at the Sir Donald Bradman Oration, Melbourne Prime Minister – Howard, John Speech – 17 August 2000

17)  Peter Roebuck, It Takes All Sorts, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005, p 22

18)  Shoaib Akhtar, ‘You have to be mad to be a fast bowler’ Who would know better than the maddest, baddest, fastest one of them all, Shoaib Akhtar Interview by Sidharth Monga  April 2015

19)  New York Times, Sir Donald Bradman, 92, Cricket Legend, Dies  JOHN SHAW February 27, 2001

20)  Time magazine, Milestones, March 4, 2001,9171,101355,00.html

21) Alec Bedser cited in The Joy of Cricket, edited by John Bright-Holmes. Peerage Books, London, 1984, P 136.

22)  Jack Egan, in his documentary Bradman, ABC DVD,1990/2008.

23)  Donald Bradman,

24)  Jack Egan & Donald Bradman, in Egan’s documentary: Bradman, ABC DVD, 1990/2008.

25) Glenn McGrath, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to set a batsman up by giving him runs’ Interview by Abhishek Purohit, August 26, 2014

26)  Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957) cited in Ayn Rand Lexicon, Ed. Harry Binswanger, NAL Books, New York, 1986, p 444

27)  Peter Roebuck, It Takes All Sorts, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005, p 182

28)  Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, p 68

29)  Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy, Pan Books, London, 2006, p 269

30)  Carolyn Gregoire, in The brain-training secrets of Olympic athletes by Carolyn Gregoire  February 12, 2014.

31)  Martin Crowe, How McCullum helped me let go   By Martin Crowe

February 18, 2014

32)  Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand Lexicon, Ed. Harry Binswanger, NAL Books, New York, 1986, p 50-51

33)  Don Bradman, Farewell to Cricket, Editions Tom Thompson, Sydney, 1994, p 303

34)  Peter Roebuck, It Takes All Sorts, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005, p 22

7 thoughts on “Cricket, the Great Mental Game

  • says:

    Let me confess that I have not fully read Scott A. McConnell’s rather lengthy article. The primarily reason is because the failure of cricket to command the near-universal support of soccer is contained in the first two paragraphs. As he writes “The game began in England and today is primarily played there and in former British Empire countries.” In the second paragraph he explains the significance of the mental aspect of the game. He appears to be unaware of the fact that in order to appreciate that mental aspect, one almost certainly needed to have actually played the game, however briefly, perhaps at school. Merely watching it, particularly if as an adult for the first time, is unlikely to engender the enthusiasm of keen fans. This, I suggest, is the reason why the game is primarily played in former British Empire countries. Most of those of us who did not grow up in any of those countries and were not exposed to the game from childhood, find it most peculiar in all its aspects and, yes, boring. May I add that this does not mean that we think any less of cricket enthusiasts and trust that this stance is reciprocated.

    • PT says:

      In part it’s because cricket has a lot of rules. You can get out by being bowled; caught; run out; stumped; LBW or handled ball. It’s not just school. Playing with kids, in Australia using a bin as the stumps; is where it really begins. I’ve seen shows in Pakistan where any green strip has people playing cricket on it. That’s where kids are introduced to the game and the ethos. The ethos is a good one. Fair play; mind and body; if the ball touched the ground you tell the umpire! It is like a battle where you respect your opponent. I like rugby for similar reasons.

  • btola says:

    I learnt to play cricket as a child, in an English school in Peru, in the 50’s. The passion has remained even though I have not played the game since I was 10 years old. This passion for the game was shared widely by my mostly Peruvian schoolmates. May I add that my passion does not extend to what I regard as travesties of the game, One-day cricket and T20, because in these the strategic slowness of the game has been removed.

    • PT says:

      It’s sad that many don’t grasp the levels of brilliance of the great game. For one it’s a great leveller. In the 19th century you had matches between the “players” (working class folk who needed to be paid) and “gentlemen” who had the leasure to play. So whilst class boundaries existed, it was already crossing them. But crossing them in an equal means, not giving a “handicap” to those deemed “disadvantaged”.

  • says:

    I write as somebody who has been involved with the game for over 5 decades and is still involved with it, as an active umpire and occasional coach. Cricket has been badly ‘marketed’ for decades now. It is the most skillful ball game in the world but has never, and is not now been sold as such. Channel 9 to my mind has done immense harm to the game with their promotion/advertising of their broadcasts using unsavoury incidents and over use of characters/players such as Shane Warne and under-utilising real gentlemen of the game such as Steve Waugh and Matt Hayden.
    Articles such as the one above don’t/won’t induce anybody to become involved. I have seen cricket being played in places such as Mongolia [Australian engineers/miners] and Holland. Where there is cricket there is civilisation.

  • lloveday says:

    A couple of quotes bemused me
    (1) Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar devised this strategy against high scoring Australian batsmen Adam Gilchrist: “The best idea was to get him out early”.
    Wow; I’d have thought the best strategy against any and all batsmen would be to get them out as early as possible.
    (2) Jason Gillespie revealed an intriguing strategy for England to use against the Australian team: “I saw no glaring weaknesses in the Australian team……… So if I was England coach, I’d keep those guys out there for a long time”.
    Wow again; bat for a long time, which I’d have thought was an objective of every team in a Test. The alternatives seems to me to be throwing wickets away and, or, batting for a short time.

  • ian.macdougall says:

    My favourite piece of cricketing literature has to be the classic poem ‘How McDougal topped the score’ (1906) by the Australian bush poet Thomas A. Spencer (

    McDougal is a total novice at cricket, but keen to help his home team of Piper’s Flat beat their rivals Molongo. He is the last to bat, with Molongo on 66 all out, and the way things stand the total novice McDougal has to pile on a further 50: apparently a hopeless cause

    Nine wickets down for seventeen, with fifty more to win!
    Our captain heaved a heavy sigh—and sent McDougal in.
    “Ten pounds to one you lose it!” cried a barracker from town;
    But McDougal said “I’ll tak’ it, mon!” and planted the money down.
    Then he girded up his moleskins in a self-reliant style,
    Threw off his hat and boots, and faced the bowler with a smile.

    Then McDougal really gives the game away:

    He held the bat the wrong side out, and Johnson with a grin,
    Stepped lightly to the bowling crease, and sent a “wobbler” in ….

    Thinking about this after looking at an Aboriginal spear shield, I was struck by the similarity of size and shape between a typical narrow spear shield and the back of the blade of a cricket bat: ie a cricket bat held “the wrong side out” in the McDougal manner. Scott McConnell cites velocities of incoming balls as being bowled at “speeds up to ninety-five miles per hour”. But an incoming spear as launched from a woomera would likely travel as fast if not faster. The primary objective of the defender would be deflection of it: anywhere. The last thing he would want would be a direct hit, spear point into shield. So the device not so much a ‘shield’ as a spear deflector, and as the spear came, the defender would have to step nimbly to one side of it and brush it aside with his spear deflector.

    The handle of the Aboriginal spear deflector is carved midway into the back of it. The handle of a cricket bat (in the case of McDougal’s bat, perhaps better called a ‘random-direction ball deflector’) is inserted into the top of the blade. But the two devices, as they perform much the same job, display remarkable similarities.

    IMHO, yet another example of convergent evolution.

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