IPL is no place for the weak minded

Yusuf Pathan’s destructive batting has sadly come to resemble a bear with a gun wound playing golf © PTI

By James Marsh

Compared to a few other members of the Test Match Special (TMS) commentary team, Geoffrey Boycott is a renaissance man when it comes to knowledge of world cricket. Listening, as is strongly recommended, to his regular ESPN podcast Bowl at Boycs; he exhibits an appreciation of the global game and its foibles which goes well beyond the often somewhat parochial confines of TMS and, at times, Sky broadcasts.

When live on air, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll ever hear him say, “Not seen this lad before. Turns it,” which is often David Lloyd‘s stock delivery for any young spinner from beyond the shores of Britain, and Boycott’s willingness to interpret disputes such as player versus country versus franchise in considered shades of grey flies in the face of his bluff reputation.  

In the latest episode, he gave this analysis of the Indian Premier League (IPL): “Twenty-over cricket, we keep telling people, they can’t give you situations where character and mental toughness comes in. Yes, there is lots of interest, lots of inventive shots, and there’s quite a lot of skill. But the character and mental toughness that is needed for Test cricket is not there. I enjoy watching it a bit, but I can’t honestly say I want to watch every game because there is a lot of it, every day. And, you know, after a month or so of that, it’s like my mum. When she was alive, she was a lovely cook. She used to cook me steak and kidney pie, I loved it. But if I had it on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, by Friday I was fit to throw it at her. I wanted something different.”

Some reasoned pros and cons about the tournament there, and who doesn’t enjoy a Boycott analogy involving both his mother and her cooking, but surely he’s not right to assert there’s no mental toughness required in T20? 
The stakes may not be so high in an IPL match as a gala Test, but they can sharpen far, far quicker. Boycott loves seeing dot balls in Test cricket in order to build pressure and “make something happen”; the IPL serves up his theory in microcosm time and time again, as teams in comfortable positions lose what should rationally be an irrelevant wicket but then allow the few inevitable dot balls which accompany a rebuilding to flare up into the cricketing equivalent of a boil. The need to then lance it all too quickly often involves wild flailing as seen by Kolkata Knight Riders’s Manoj Tiwary and Yusuf Pathan. The latter’s once destructive batting has sadly come to resemble a bear with a gun wound playing golf. His side lost their nerve and the match, a scenario very nearly replicated by Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) after losing the wicket of AB de Villiers when well positioned. In T20 two or three dot balls towards the end of a chase wreak mental havoc. Established Test players feel it as well as young rookies. Kohli’s involvement in a farcical run out closely followed by his own slap to cover dismissal being a case in point.
On his Test debut in 1999, Michael Vaughan walked out to face Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock at the Wanderers with the score on 2 for 2. England lost another two wickets without scoring a run. The two-hour 33 Vaughan went on to make in that innings would have been impossible without mental fortitude — for anyone let alone a debutant. But it was still paltry in terms of time compared to Michael Atherton’s ten and three-quarter hour 185 not out at the same ground four years earlier. Atherton said that the length he was at the crease actually enabled him to go into what he, somewhat sheepishly, called “the zone” where he just knew he wasn’t going to get out. It is unlikely Vaughan ever felt like that during his frenzied 119 minutes in the middle. This isn’t to suggest equivalence between the two innings, merely to propose that time can eventually cut both ways when it comes to pressure. 
A test of character can be equally challenging whether short and sharp or prolonged and subtle. In Test cricket, pressure is like water torture, the slow build-up of drips nibbling away at a tiring brain. In T20, it’s more like water-boarding —sudden, shocking and arguably completely unjustified. There’s no time to stop and assess situations and, consequently, players react in accordance to their perception of what the pressure is rather than the reality. The result is inevitably errors and more pressure, now increasingly justified. The IPL clearly does not provide the elongated examinations of a player’s mentality that Atherton or even Vaughan were subjected to, but anyone suggesting it doesn’t provide situations which test character is plainly, as Boycott himself might say, “not right in the head”.
(James Marsh is a TEFL teacher based in the Czech Republic, although his real occupation is alienating those close to him by wallowing on statsguru. He blogs on cricket at Pavilion Opinions and can be found on Twitter at @PavilionOpinion)