Playing in the zone – when players reach their peak

(Photo: Adrian Murrell / Allsport)

By Garfield Robinson

 

It was my finest moment as a cricketer,” Nasser Hussain said, referring to the moment during the 1997 Ashes series that he stroked Shane Warne’s flipper for four to reach his first and only double century in Tests. It wasn’t the size of his score that made him feel that way, though he was pleased about that, rather, it was the manner in which he had played. “I never knew you could bat that well,” Alec Stewart told him afterwards. “Nor did I,” the batsman thought to himself.

It was one the biggest matches he’d played in up to then. It was against the best bowling attack in the game, led by probably the two best bowlers in the game, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Hussain had no great reputation as a batsman. He didn’t even consider himself world-class, as he revealed in his autobiography Playing With Fire. And yet here he was, stroking the Australian bowlers all over Egbaston, like they were a bunch of 12-year-olds.

12.3-8-12-7. Those are Steve Harmison’s bowling figures in the West Indies’ second innings of the 2004 Jamaica Test. Brian Lara and his men were cleaned up for 47 and England won easily by 10 wickets. The game was being keenly contested and was progressing at a rather normal clip before Harmison brought it to an abrupt end on the fourth morning.

The lanky pacer was unstoppable. “I genuinely felt there was no-one who could play me,” Harmison wrote in Speed Demons. “I felt every ball was going to get a wicket. Everything had clicked, and there’s only half a dozen times in your career that happens. The ball was swinging, it was quick and it was accurate, on the money every time.”

We speak often of cricketers being in the “zone”, that place where batting or bowling becomes effortless, where mind and body operates in total harmony, where everything occurs as if in slow motion. It is a spell of total ease and clarity, where normal anxieties disappear.

We see examples of players being there in a variety of sports. Scientists have disputed the “hot hand” theory in basketball, but many players and fans still swear by it. And recently there have been a few other scientists who have suggested its existence. In baseball, we see it in pitchers raising their game to the point that batters can’t even touch them.

Basketball great Bill Russell describes being in the zone in Second Wind, his memoir: “It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”

Logically, we’d assume that the great players found themselves in that space more often than others. Brian Lara must have been there during his 277 in Sydney, his 213 in Jamaica, and during his two world-record innings in Antigua. Curtly Ambrose was certainly in the zone at Perth during his famous 7-1 spell and in Trinidad where he shot out England for 46. VVS Laxman played a number of superlative innings, his 281 against Australia at Eden Gardens, for example, could hardly have been bettered.

But, one need not be a great player to produce instances of greatness. During the West Indies’ 1992-93 tour of Australia, erstwhile West Indies coach, Phil Simmons, then a belligerent opening batsman, landed in the zone during an ODI against Pakistan in Sydney. Strangely, it was as a medium-paced bowler that he had his special moment. In his full allotment of 10 overs, eight of which were maidens, Simmons took four wickets for three runs. Every ball seemed to travel the exact path he intended. Batsmen the caliber of Javed Miandad, Salim Malik and Inzamam ul Haq were befuddled by his accuracy and the seam and swing he garnered, while he outbowled Ambrose, Patrick Patterson and Kenny Benjamin, all with much bigger reputations as bowlers.

Role reversal: Opening batsman Phil Simmons had a one-off spell to remember with his medium pace (photo: Getty Images)

So impressive was Simmons’ display that the West Indies selectors thought he had suddenly become a world-class seamer, and so picked him as one of four front-line bowlers for the Test match against Australia that followed soon afterwards. He was never able to replicate that kind of performance, of course. Hulk turned back into Bruce Banner. His performance was nothing he had planned for or visualized, and he could not reproduce it. He was as flabbergasted as everyone else as to how he came to bowl as he did. It left him as suddenly as it came.

One of Mark Taylor’s peak-performance experiences came upon him suddenly too. It came in Peshewar in 1998 where he made an unbeaten 334. He was horrendously out of form leading up to the game, he recalls in Time To Declare, but as he got deep into his innings he knew he was in a special place. “I had now reached a point where I honestly didn’t believe I could get out. It just wasn’t a factor. It was bloody amazing. I had spent six months of my career in 1997 trying to work out how I was going to get a run…But in Peshewar, I knew exactly where they were going. Even though they had five men on the boundary I could still picture myself hitting a four – and would do it.”

It is very unlikely that any player can place themselves in that place of optimal performance whenever he or she pleases. One difference, I suppose, between the greats and the ordinary players is that great players know how to better prepare to enter into that phase.

Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, knew well how to give himself the best chance of achieving huge success. In 2004, he decided to put away the cover drive in Sydney, after concluding the stroke was getting him into trouble too often. The result was 613 minutes at the crease for 241 runs without a single drive through the covers. Even as Laxman enchanted the gathering with drives through the off side and all round the park, Tendulkar remained resolute.

Players like Virat Kohli also seem able to reach that peak-performance level more frequently than most. In one 10-game spurt during the 2016 IPL, he ran up a staggering 778 runs, including four centuries and three half-centuries at an average of just over 93. That consistent level of performance was unheard of, especially since his golden run was accomplished in the format that requires batsmen to entertain a high-risk game – a game where boundaries are the preferred and most important scoring options, where defence is often frowned upon, where the dot ball is sometimes an abomination. To have recorded that level of production was simply extraordinary.

It is doubtful that there is a formula for unlocking the gateway that leads to the zone, but it can’t be totally arbitrary either. Sportsmen will probably never be able to summon it as they please. Yet there may be ways – and different methods may relate to different individuals – to facilitate its arrival. That should be the aim of every player.

 

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