Lord's look to bottle essence of Atherton
Special England report identifies what turns our cricketers into tough nuts
Monday July 22, 2002
Call it mental toughness, a killer instinct, or even, as Mike Atherton describes it, a bit of extra spunk. Whatever that elusive ingredient is that turns good players into truly great players, English cricket is looking to bottle it.
The England and Wales Cricket Board has enlisted a sports psychologist, Dr Steve Bull, to define just what this extra something is and to develop a way of engendering it in England's future cricketers.
To that end, Bull and his team of sports "psyches" have spent a year researching a report called Developing a Winning Mind in Young English Cricketers, due out on the eve of next year's World Cup. More than 100 coaches and players were interviewed.
Bull found a number of common characteristics in top players from the past two decades. They are able to take the knocks, are independent and take the time to scrutinize their own efforts, plus they compete against themselves as much as against other people. Darren Gough, for instance, says: "I always go out there to get five wickets win or lose."
The sports psychologist also isolated a winning attitude as one that thrives on competition, can best exploit learning opportunities and is most willing to take risks.
All pretty much common sense, really, but where do you find such tough nuts? Well, Bull discovered many top players had another thing in common - their background. Cricketers who had to cope with some sort of hardship in their childhood, or had a harsh upbringing, were often the toughest competitors. Take Nasser Hussain, who says his father ruled with the stick.
Bull explains: "We found it in players who had to survive some sort of early setback, to cope with some failure early on in life. That was quite a good way of developing some of the characteristics that we're looking for."
This setback can be on or off the pitch. "When a player loses form as a 14 or 15-year-old or, all of a sudden, his bowling arm's gone, that's pretty tough," explains the doctor, citing Hussain's own loss of form at 15 as a prime example.
"He was a leg spinner and all of a sudden couldn't bowl leg spin particularly effectively any more. It was a significant period for him which he had to work through to re-establish himself."
Hussain admits he went from being the hero in his school to the bloke who'd lost it.
Bull did a straw poll of the country's top coaches, getting them to list the 10 cricketers who, over the past two decades, they considered had been the toughest mentally. Mike Atherton came out on top with Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Ian Botham and Geoffrey Boycott following on down the list.
Atherton agrees that much of his own steely nerve on the pitch comes from his childhood in the rougher parts of Manchester. But he also thinks the right environment is needed to develop a player's mind.
"You have to have a little bit of spunk inside you at the start, but I also think not enough emphasis is being given to the mental side of the game. People spend a lot of time in the nets, a lot of time in the gym. How much time do they actually spend training the mind, which is probably of equal importance?" he said.
Even if a player with all these attributes is discovered, Bull identifies one other problem - Englishness.
"I don't think our culture prevents the development of these characteristics, but sometimes it doesn't help. We know the Australian culture is very competitive, quite abrasive in a sports setting. That's not the English way. The worst-case scenario is where we're glorious in defeat sometimes in this country. Sometimes our finest days are when we almost make it. I don't think that helps.
"I think we need to be somewhat different in the way we treat our young performers in their formative years if we're going to turn them into hard-driven, competitive winners," he said.
Rodney Marsh, the man charged with finding England's future world-beaters at the National Academy, agrees. "Australian Academy boys didn't want to train too hard. They'd rather have a few beers. But, come game day, they'd break down the door to get on the field to play. English boys train very hard, but come game day not all of them would break down the door to get on the field, just in case they'd fail," he said.
For Marsh, Graham Gooch epitomized real mental strength. "When the pitch was bad that's when he wanted to bat, especially against the West Indies, because he knew if he got 50 or 60 it would be one hell of a good effort. That's real mental toughness."