The Spin | Quarantine psychology, the new element of a cricket team’s arsenal | Sport

The doom-mongers said this summer could be the end of cricket as we knew it. They were talking about the Hundred, obviously, not a pandemic, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Rather than Welsh Fire and Manchester Originals, we got biosecure bubbles and umpires with wet wipes. Instead of inuring ourselves to five-ball overs or becoming instant experts in the strategic use of the timeout, we have been given a host of other unexpected details to obsess over.

Who knew, for instance, the player with the sweatiest back would suddenly have such a vital role in the team? With Australia in England for their limited-overs games, the ICC is further tightening the regulations for shining the ball. No perspiration from the head, face or neck is to be used on the ball: in other words, dampest shirt-tail wins. Even now, Joe Denly may be riding the lifts in the Ageas Hilton in his workout gear, hoping to run into Eoin Morgan in a powerfully moist state in order to stake his claim before Friday’s T20.

Another issue that has become surprisingly significant in post-Covid competition is how well you play to empty stadiums, like Katy Perry on her 2017-18 Witness tour. It was already in the thoughts of Steve Smith before he left home. He said he would miss the boos that had become his personal soundtrack on last year’s tour of England. The crowd’s off-key accompaniment had, he said, “egged him on” in his pursuit of centuries.

This admission runs counter to the casual view of Smith, who may be a twitching fusspot at the crease, but has always given the impression of a man who retreats into a Sherlock-style memory palace to get the best out of himself. He does, after all, embody the inspirational spirit of an Etsy-made fridge-magnet: “Bat like no one’s watching.”

In a cricket ground offering less natural atmosphere than a Martian colony, the ability to create your own can have a huge impact on a game. Pakistan demonstrated this in their bowling efforts against England. From the moment they took to the field in the first Test, their self-generating energy – vocal and emotional – helped them rattle through England’s top order. Their home games in the UAE, in front of regularly empty stands, may have helped them to become their own cheerleaders.

Steve Smith says the boos of the crowd gave him extra motivation to do well in the 2019 Ashes. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Their team chi made for a fascinating contrast with the opposition. England emerged triumphant in the series, but their fielding unit often seemed to be testing a unique philosophical theorem. If you drop a catch in the slips and there’s no one around to groan out loud, can you pretend it never happened at all?

Quarantine psychology is a new part of a team’s arsenal. Management must attempt to discern which players will suffer most – and which may even benefit – from the isolated venues and noiseless environment. This week, Paddy Upton, whose work as a “mental conditioning coach” has benefited many T20 franchise teams, said he foresaw big-match players such as Virat Kohli finding a tough new challenge in this season’s Covid-curtailed IPL.

“Athletes who are internally driven, who find the motivation from within themselves, they are going to be fine,” said Upton. “Your typical confidence players, who look for motivation, inspiration or validation from outside, they are really going to struggle.” In other words, in the biosecure bubble it really matters whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert. Finally, all those Myers-Briggs tests professional athletes are forced to take are proving useful.

If the deck is stacked in favour of introverts, then the recent third Test didn’t just offer the perfect climatic conditions for Jimmy Anderson reach his 600th wicket, but the psychological ones, too. Never has such a historic landmark been achieved to so little live applause. Jos Buttler, another England introvert, struggled with his wicketkeeping throughout the summer, but showed extraordinary mental fortitude in his record-breaking third Test partnership with Zak Crawley.

But the extroverts haven’t done too badly, either. Before the start of England’s summer campaign Stuart Broad consulted the team psychologist, David Young, about the problem of taking the stage to an empty house. “It’s a worry for me,” said Broad, “because I know that I perform at my best as a player under pressure … and I know that there are certain scenarios that bring the worst out of me as a cricketer, and that is when I feel the game is just floating along.”

Broad said he would look for new ways to elevate his emotions and maintain his motivation: “Maybe I’ll have to pick more of a battle with the opposition.” At the end of the first Test against Pakistan he had a £2,250 fine from his dad, the match referee. By the end of the series he had 13 wickets at 16.46.

It will be strange for England and Australia, whose games are always some of the hottest tickets in cricket, to play to piped music and tumbleweed. But if England have a two-month head start on match practice, it may be that Australia have their own edge. From David Warner’s missionary zeal for meditation (he uses the buddhify app, if you’re interested) to Smith and Cameron Bancroft’s relationship with Dr Maurice Duffy – the man who advises some of the world’s leading political figures on their mindset – the Australia squad is one that works hard on its mental preparation.

Consider the ever-popular Glenn Maxwell, who last October announced he was taking a step back from the game to deal with mental health issues, even in the middle of a truly hot streak of form. He has returned happier and healthier, and took a run-a-ball century off his teammates in their 50-over warm-up match at the weekend.

This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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