It’s probably too early to start comparing Indian cricketer Rishabh Pant to the great Brian Lara. But when Pant sealed India’s stunning recent win against Australia, it echoed other great final innings victories, particularly the Lara-inspired West Indies win against Australia in Barbados in 1999.
For India to successfully chase 328 runs on the final day was an amazing achievement, up there with the heroics of Ben Stokes at Headingley in 2019. Stokes hit 135 runs to seal an unlikely win for England, including a final wicket partnership of 76 with Jack Leach who only scored a single run. In that knife-edge final period, just one mistake would have lost the game.
But it might just be topped by Lara’s 153 (not out) in 1999, because Lara was facing arguably the best ever bowling attack Australia has ever had in Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Stuart MacGill.
Nevertheless, India’s 2-1 series win has been referred to as one of the greatest victories in test cricket. After all, they seemed down and out after being bowled out for a paltry 36 in the first test.
Many pundits were predicting a 4-0 clean sweep for Australia. So when it came to the final test in Brisbane – where Australia hadn’t lost for 33 years – the odds were stacked against them.
But there was something about the positive psychological approach of the Indian team – and Pant, who stood out. While the commentators suggested he might “hunker down” and bat cautiously for a draw, Pant exuded belief that the chase was possible.
What connects the performances of Pant, Lara and Stokes? All were aggressive left-handed batsmen, each occurred with the match and the series on a knife edge and all were achieved against strong, higher-ranked opponents – seemingly in the face of overwhelming odds.
But that’s not all. All three demonstrated a certain mindset and a belief in their own ability to succeed, approaching their task in an aggressive and positive manner. One psychological explanation that might explain these successes is the theory of “challenge and threat” states in athletes.
Challenge and threat states occur when a player subconsciously weighs up the demands of the task at hand and evaluates them in line with their own personal resources to cope with the situation. When the demands outweigh the resources, a threat state emerges, with a player experiencing negative emotions that are likely to reduce performance. But when resources outweigh demands, players perceive their emotional responses as helpful to performance, and a challenge state emerges.
In other words, the demands faced by Pant and his teammates were huge. The strength of the opposition bowling attack, wickets being lost around him and the sheer scale of the 328 target (the previous record for a successful run chase in Brisbane was 236 in 1951).
Despite all these demands, Pant refused to play cautiously for a creditable draw. Instead, he rose to the challenge and attacked, believing in his ability to achieve an impossible win.
Belief is everything
Research has shown that the challenge state produces better performance than the threat state. More specifically in cricket, a challenge state has been shown to produce better performance in a batting task than a threat state, in a group of elite academy cricketers.
This finding also extends to other sports such as football and golf – as well as demonstrating benefits in other contexts, from students sitting exams to motor skill performance in surgical tasks.
Research also suggests that a challenge state brings about better performance because it improves aspects of cognitive function, such as decision making and attention.
So what can a coach or psychologist do to help players enter high-pressure competitive situations in a state of challenge? First of all, the players need to believe they have sufficient “resources” to cope with the demands they face. Talk up their ability, skills and their accomplishments. Remind them of the times they played well and emphasise that the task should be attacked head on, rather than shied away from.
Psychological interventions may help too. For example, encouraging “physiological arousal” by viewing things which are often cited as signs of nervousness (increase in heart rate, sweaty palms or butterflies) as good reactions. They are good because they can help shift a “threatened” player into a challenge mindset.
Research has also identified the possible usefulness of talking to yourself and imagery interventions (when players effectively rehearse successful performance in their minds) to develop a challenge state.
These different approaches may help coax out good performances in players of all abilities. They also give us a glimpse at what may have been going on in Pant’s mind as he put together one of the all-time great innings. But there will always be that element of mystery when it comes to great sporting achievements. Sometimes, fans just have to shake their heads and wonder: “how did they do that?”