Pakistan’s cricket, like the country it represents, is unpredictable; a case study of a country with abundant talent and resources wasted. The only Asian tiger of the 60s now holds a begging bowl. Do fortunes of Pakistan Cricket also suggest a changing tide in every sinew of the country?

In the IIC Champion’s trophy Pakistan’s opening performance against India was in complete contrast to its performance later. Both matches were one sided but on the opposite ends. Commentators and cricketing experts kept saying that it all depends on “which Pakistan team turns up”; the fighters who lift their game on the day or the tentative and cautious players who invariably lose the element and sense of winning. Within a fortnight, everyone saw the turnaround. Pakistan rose from the ashes like a phoenix to fly away with the coveted trophy in royal fashion. In the intervening games against Sri Lanka, South Africa and England, the world saw the team come alive gradually. The outcome against India was predictable through a cognitive calculus.

More than the cricketing technique that Pakistani players lack due to the poor system back home. More than the experience the charge was led by raw talent, and more than the charismatic leadership (that Pakistan continues to mourn) the transformation in character came during three ‘sudden deaths’ in which a new fight-to-the-finish type and a new captain were discovered. Credit also goes to an impulsive coach, the Pakistani-type Daddy whose mood changed with every move and the support team. More than the techniques of the game, all combined to raise morale, imbue a combined fighting spirit and put faith in success.

When a team transforms in most trying conditions, similar attributes in the opposition begin to fail in domino effect. Winning against Sri Lanka was a cliffhanger; bowlers and a single burst of energy by Fakhar Zaman put Pakistan ahead in the rain affected match. England was overawed like a hare before a python in the semifinals. In the finals, the fact that Pakistan had lifted its game, and the fate of the teams Pakistan defeated comprehensively, had a regressive effect on the Indian team that stood cognitively defeated before the match. The legside bodyline to Fakhar Zaman and defensive bowling by Ashwin said it all. India had lost the cognitive plot.

So, what is this cognitive science and cognitive construct? It stems from fear, that has both positive and negative outcomes. It makes the image of grandeur or defeat.

Fear is a chemical reaction, a physiological signal to pay attention to a threat. It is the brain alerting about impending danger or harm, triggering the classic fight or flight response. This is manifested in sweaty palms, dry mouth; sudden rise in blood pressure, surge of blood sugar, an increase in breathing and heart rate and an urge to visit the wash room. This condition is created through a sudden release of hormones in the blood stream. A rush occurs when adrenal glands on a signal from the brain, pump an excess amount of adrenaline into the body in response to high amounts of stress or anxiety. The bitterness of the tongue just before an imminent accident, before a match, before a tough physical workout or a feeling of sudden vulnerability are cases in point. The byproduct of this process is fear. Fear has two outcomes. Fight back, what in military terms means racing through a minefield in hail of bullets, or surrendering to the situation in panic that means cowardice.

In militaries world over, to attain a fight response, this sudden rush of energy in the body is harnessed through leadership, training, camaraderie, spirit de corps, motivation and leadership. Endurance sprints, like the one mile race, endurance runs, jet fighter training, a subdued submariner life, assault courses, parachuting and battle simulations. train soldiers to harness fear.

In sportsmen, this energy seen in high performance sports like sprints, marathons, a Ronaldo like sprint with the ball, a hard hitting innings by a batsman, a wicket wrecking spell by a bowler or an impossible catch by a fielder inside the circle or the boundary line. High speed car racers use this energy to speed and control their cars at challenging curves. Perhaps the epitome of this process is high altitude lonely climbers who do it in solitary splendor. In any activity, high performance through fight response is attributable to this sudden rush of energy.

Those who fail to harness this energy get into the flight mode, a basic instinct for survival. Soldiers bolting from the battlefield, climbing impossible cliffs in panic, sportsmen conceding defeat too easily, racers giving up or climbers abandoning their mission are all examples of a flight mode.

But harnessing fear by an individual is not a constant. Same set of soldiers, sportsmen and individuals have shown high performance and retreat in different sets of conditions. Just like courage is contagious, cowardice is inflammatory. In cricket it is manifested in the swinging fortunes of Pakistan cricket with the unpredictable tag. On a given day, the same team has the ability to stun any opposition. But on that day, it is the other team on the flight end.

Pakistan’s opening match with India was a match in stress and anxiety. Propaganda of an invincible India weighed heavy. Sarfraz’s ‘out of box’ decision backfired. The poor choice of an opening attack, and persisting with it, adversely affected the mindset of players and fielding. The bowlers fought back only to be undone by a wrong bowling change. India could have been restricted to below 300 but was given a respite. Indian batsmen lifted their game. During batting, Azhar, Shehzad and Hafeez,  fighting for a place in the team, lacked confidence. That had a domino effect.

But the boys who arrested the downslide were Hassan Ali, Junaid Khan and the debutant Fakhar Zaman. In the closing stages, the captain came ‘into his own’ and grafted a win. In the match against Sri Lanka, Pakistan displayed mixed traits of harnessing fears and yielding to panic. But then the die was cast. The body language of youngsters became infectious. Both the support and playing teams had learned their lessons that became a measure of days to come.

The match against India was predictable. Pakistan’s three successive wins in sudden death had dented the mindset of Indian players and support staff. Put to bat, Fakhar was fearless and dexterous. Azhar raised his game when Fakhar was under a volley of bodyline. Luck favoured the brave and then it was mayhem. India lost the game early.

But there were others who must be credited for bringing a change in the mindset of youngsters. Viv Richards, the mentor of Pakistan’s Captain Sarfraz, Darren Sammy who changed the mindsets of Muhammad Hafeez, Hassan Ali and Junaid Khan and Brendon McCullum who transformed Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman into aggressive batsmen. No wonder that five players came directly from PSL.

Cricket and its technicalities like all other sports and warfare depends a lot on controlling and harnessing that sudden rush of adrenaline, a hyper energy that lifts everything. Training, high morale, good leadership and ability to switch on and off this rush make champions. Pakistan cricket has done it.

Similarly, Pakistan also needs a new breed of young and tenacious leaders; agents of change with ability to harness the true potential of every sinew that is Pakistan.

 

The writer is a political economist and a television anchorperson.

samson.sharaf@gmail.com