A gnawing fear of failure looms over this all-conquering Indian cricket team. Undoubtedly, they are the strongest team this nation has ever assembled, buoyed by the never-ending reservoir of their talent pool, but they still lack a vital ingredient in their resume – an ICC Trophy. Much of this failure can be pinned to one bad day at work. They choked against Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy, succumbed to New Zealand in the rain-affected semis of the 2019 ODI World Cup, and crashed out of the group stage in T20 World Cup last year.
There’s another T20I World Cup in a few months, and anything less than a championship title will be deemed as an underachievement for this side. No one understands this better than Rahul Dravid, whose sole purpose as a coach is to bring a series of titles at stake back home. And to succeed in his mission, Dravid has brought in Paddy Upton, a renowned mental conditioning coach. His tenure starts from today and will last till the completion of the T20I World Cup in Australia.
More than a decade ago, Garry Kirsten appointed Upton in the same role, and it culminated with India’s first World Cup title in 28 years. High-pressure situations impair the decision-making ability, and in the end, the difference between the victor and the vanquished often comes down to the fewer number of errors. No one understands this better than Upton.
Ahead of the 2011 World Cup campaign, Upton introduced the Indian side to his ex-colleague Mike Horn, who is also a high-altitude climber and had trekked over 8000m without the aid of an oxygen cylinder and returned back alive. Horn took several sessions with the Indian cricketers and introduced them to the rigours of high-stake situations, where one good or bad decision is the difference between life and death, triumph and defeat. Most of the Indian players of that World Cup-winning side acknowledged the role Upton played in the drawing board.
It was a no-brainer for Dravid to opt for Upton over anyone else. He knows the intricacies of his work, after having worked for several years in tandem at Rajasthan Royals. While he has been brought in as a mental conditioning coach, his influence will not be limited to his job title. In Upton, Dravid is also getting an astute thinker of the game, someone who has guided a bunch of no-hoppers at Sydney Thunders to their maiden league title in 2016. Before Upton’s appointment, the Thunders had lost 21 out of 22 matches they played.
For all their glory, there was a sense of insecurity among players in the Kohli-Shastri era. By playing the same XI in the five-match series against Ireland, one could sense the beginning of a new team culture under Dravid, where every player feels secure about their place in the setup. Upton too comes from the same school of thought. The lack of surety is not the right mental state for a player to be in.
“When people come into the team, they already know what is expected of them, how we operate, what is going to work, what is not going to work. While your personnel might be changing through auctions, injuries, you can certainly maintain a culture where people come in and settle quite quickly,” said Upton to The Cricket Monthly.
Of late, with the advent of the statistical revolution, there has been a growing tendency to put everything down to the pitch, anatomising results solely on the action that happens between the 22 yards, and dismissing everything else as fluff. The major caveat in such theories is that a player is often treated as an entity in itself, a robotic human devoid of emotions. But neither the game nor the player exists in the vacuum. The larger environment too plays an important role.
Thus it becomes important to have a professional psychologist whose expertise helps the player to manoeuver through the ebbs and flows of working in such a high-pressure setup.
“If someone does not have the physical skills, they are not going to be picked in the first place, but once you arrive there and your skill has taken you to that level, the mental side is the most important standout aspect,” said Upton when asked about the role mental strength plays in the shortest format of the game.
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