David Warner is undoubtedly up there, as one of the best among opening batsmen in contemporary cricket. With 20 Test hundreds under his belt in 66 Tests, he has scored 5705 runs at an impressive average of 47.94. In 98 one-day internationals, he averages 44.94 per inning and has 13 three-figure knocks.
Yet, ‘Chinaman’ Kuldeep Yadav — with the rich experience of bowling in two Test matches, nine one-day internationals and two T20s — calls him his ‘bunny’.
All right, Yadav may have stopped just short of using the ‘B’ word, but speaking to a few sportswriters recently, he said, “I bowl at Warner thinking I can get him out. I know the pressure is all on him. And I think he feels the pressure as well when I come on.”
Cricketing pundits would have called such ‘tall’ claims — especially from a bowler who is still wet behind the ears — sacrilegious till a couple of decades ago. Seniors in the team would have reproached him for such imprudence. This would be true, despite the fact that Yadav had picked Warner’s scalp five times in a career that hasn’t even taken off as yet; notwithstanding even an ODI hat trick.
One wonders, therefore, if Yadav’s statement had the team’s backing. If Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli, using the young bowler as ‘bait’, were trying to needle the opener who has the reputation of winning matches on his own? Does Team India believe that Yadav can be used as the ‘sacrificial goat’ to lure Warner — and possibly Steve Smith, as skipper — out of his composure?
Welcome to the brand new world of cricket’s psychological warfare. It’s beyond sledging; it’s about occupying and destroying a player’s mental space even before he enters the ground.
How does a player with the proven calibre of David Warner react to such provocation? Australian leg-spinner of the 1920s — cartoonist and wit too — Arthur Mailey’s anecdote of over 90 years ago could perhaps be a lead on.
Mailey was to bowl to Sir Donald Bradman in an exhibition match once. A day before the match, he mentioned to a newspaper reporter, off the cuff, that he probably had a delivery that would trouble the legendary batsman.
When Mailey woke up the next morning he was aghast to see the headline right across the broadsheet: “MAILEY TO DEFEAT BRADMAN’. He says that his face went white and his hands started trembling, for he knew what the great man would do to him in that match. For the record, Sir Don scored a quick-fire hundred and reserved most of the punishment for Mailey!
A battle royale between Warner and Yadav is now due. Let’s wait and see who wins.
Ravi Shastri, the Indian team’s mentor now, would know better than anybody else that moments of glory in cricket are just impostors. Cricket, as the cliché goes, is a great leveller.
In the ‘80s, a young fast bowler named Mike Whitney was included in the Australian squad and came in to field as 12th man against India. When Shastri played a flick towards him, the over-enthusiastic young man swooped on the ball and yelled at the tall Indian batsman, “If you move out of your crease, I’ll break your @&$#@ head.” Shastri, not one to take abuses, staring at Whitney, said, “If you could bowl as well as you talk, you wouldn’t be a @&$#@ 12th man!”
In 1991, India — under Azharuddin — was playing its fifth Test at Perth and needed 442 to win in the fourth innings. Mike Whitney picked 7-27 (11-95 in the match) to send India to an ignominious 301 run defeat. He sure knew how to bowl! It’s a funny game, isn’t it, this cricket?
Australians are past masters at sledging and at the art of ‘mental disintegration’, as Steve Waugh termed it. Their strategy, besides on-field confrontations, has always included taking pot-shots at the opposition in media interviews. Their ‘war-room’ line of attack is the opponents’ Achilles Heel and pointing out, aloud, how they would exploit it.
The Indians picked up this trick under the ‘aggressive’ leadership of Sourav Ganguly and gave the itinerant Australians at the turn of the millennium, a horrid, horrid time. With bat, ball and mouth! There was no love lost between the two skippers, Waugh and Ganguly, by the end of that series. India won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy that year, bringing to an end Australia’s domination of world cricket.
In his autobiography, Steve Waugh describes his psychological battles against great Test teams like South Africa, England and the West Indies. He talks of how Shane Warne owned the head-space of Daryll Cullinan and how a tearaway pace bowler, Nanti Hayward was put in his place by an over from Brett Lee.
The Proteas, it is believed, had predicted that Hayward would trouble the Australians with his pace, but then Waugh asked Lee to return a bit of ‘chin music’ to the feisty bowler when he batted. Off the third ball, which was bounced on leg-stump, Hayward retreated towards square-leg and fell on the adjoining plot. That, Waugh opines, probably ended his career and hurt South Africa badly.
Courtney Walsh was given a similar run over by Glenn McGrath says Waugh, when they played the West Indies. Pace bowlers from the Caribbean Isles had intimidated batsmen from all over the world into submission for a long time. “When they knew that we would fight fire with fire, and subject their lower order batting to a bumper barrage, we sensed the mood of the battle had changed. Suddenly, we were in the driver’s seat.”
“Likewise, when we were playing England, Glenn McGrath's name only had to be on the team list to have Mike Atherton's scalp on his belt, while Atherton's teammate Graeme Hick dissolved in the menacing presence of Merv Hughes,” writes Waugh.
Kohli’s style of captaincy is aggressive, a bit more than that of Ganguly and Waugh. In contrast to MS Dhoni’s style of leadership, which relied on inflicting cuts and wounds, and letting the opposition bleed itself to death, Kohli believes in frontal attack. Shastri — who can be arrogant and aggressive too — and Kohli are birds of a kind.
But the two have to realise that overt aggression in sport can also backfire. A dozen years before Kohli was born, the West Indies played a series in England. Tony Greig, the England skipper, had said of them, “I like to think that people are building them up, because I am not really sure they are as good as everyone thinks they are.” He then added, “If the West Indies get on top they are magnificent cricketers, but if they are down, they grovel. And I intend to make them grovel.”
The Caribbean cricketers, and supporters, were infuriated. They dominated the series and won the five Test series, 3-0. It was the English cricketers who were made to grovel!
The Indian think tank surely appreciates the fact that they have played a lot of its cricket at home in the recent past. Now comes the time to travel abroad and prove its credentials; to stake a claim for the undisputed numero uno spot in world cricket.
Its players, perhaps a bit cocky after the home successes, will need to put in a lot more than psychological pressure on their opponents to do well in alien conditions. Only those who are mentally, physically and technically good will survive the rigours of away series.
Responding to a query on television the other day, if Dhoni would play the World Cup of 2019, former India opener and coach, Anshuman Gaekwad said, “In the next few months, when India play abroad, there will be a question mark on the credentials of many players; why only Dhoni? I am confident he’ll survive.”
Psychological warfare is now an integral part of cricket. However, home teams have the greater advantage in these battles; what with the home media, home crowds and home conditions on your side? Shastri and Kohli thus have a hill to climb, and it will take more than a few ‘sacrificial goats’ to beat South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand on their home grounds.
David Warner will surely play the World Cup of 2019. Will Kuldeep Yadav be there?
Steve Waugh scored 80 in his farewell innings in Test cricket on 6 January 2004. While he was batting, India’s ‘keeper Parthiv Patel needled him by saying, “C’mon, Steve. Let’s see you play the slog sweep one last time.”
Looking back at the puny, baby-faced ‘keeper, Waugh said, “Show a bit of respect. When I played my first Test, 18 years ago, you were still in your nappies.”
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, he is an ex-cricket and football coach and has mentored state and national players. He is also a renowned mental toughness coach.