Does the Indian cricket team really choke?
- Analysing if the Indian cricket team tends to choke at crucial moments in games.
- Mental toughness and street smartness seem to have been missing in key games in recent times.
The Indian cricket team are the bullies of the world, whacking opponents mercilessly home and away. Buoyed by a top-order and a pace attack chauvinistically gloated as the best in the world, the Indian cricket team hasn't lost a game in a while.
They are the favourites. As the world expects the highest scoring ICC tournament of all time, the Indian cricket team seems to be taken aback by pitches than seam, bounce, swing and offer the spinners no chance. As a top-four team, they return from the World Cup empty handed to those billions fans calling the Indian cricket team the new chokers of the world.
Is the Indian cricket team developing a habit, or has it been the habit of their fans for a million years? When captain Virat Kohli couldn't buy a run in the months following the World Cup, slurs were thrown at his actress wife Anushka Sharma. When Sachin Tendulkar endured poor form in 2005, we called the big man out of the game. The whole of the country turned orthopedists during Tendulkar's ennis elbow.
Is it the ability to mop the bigger picture under the carpet? Or is it the inability to see things the way they should be, devoid of the day-in-day-out masala? Or is it the false sense of security at calling out the country's biggest celebrities?
Perhaps, it is a convenient yet damaging façade to live under. Like a decrepit house, if you can't afford one, it may come crashing on your head any moment.
To call the Indian cricket team as chokers, to scoff that they can't handle pressure, would be ignoring the more sophisticated question of their road map for the next global tournament. It is the easiest and most unthinking way one can resort to when one can't see a pattern.
Indian cricket - a chaotic cauldron
For starters, Indian cricket players grow up in a pressure cooker.
They either have a worried parent who thunders "kheloge khudoge honge kharab (you'll be a waste if you play all day)"; or the martinetish father with a handlebar moustache who swears to his neighbour that his child will play in the IPL.
They have teachers to contend with because they haven't been in class. With tests, exams, and supplementaries to worry about, if they don't pass they'll be cornered for a month.
Indian cricket players, in their formative years, deal with that sort of garden-level pressure, day in day out, where they are not allowed to relax just because they are a child.
And then, after being shunned by the society, after skipping meals every night to marry off their sister, they finally land an IPL contract. Their life moves from a damp, derelict, cavernous middle-class house to a posh city setting. But the roots don't change. They share a dressing room with some of the greatest players of the game, perhaps a field, and experience pressure of the highest degree.
In such a setting, they are earmarked for the national side. With forty such nights of pressure, they get their first India cap. Their mates from the college team who couldn't handle the pressures of professional cricket are washed down by the waves. And after two years, they find themselves at the pinnacle of international cricket, a World Cup.
While that pressure is something of its own, a rookie international has already had the ball in his hands in an IPL final. With two runs required off the last ball, he tends to think about his parents watching from home and his little brother who has to go back to school the next day.
He has already looked up to the skies in prayer as a lanky teenager, when sixteen runs were needed off the last over of a league match and he was batting with the tailenders. He knows what it is like, and he is here because he has handled 'pressure'.
How do cricketers of other international teams handle pressure?
It may be impossible to quantify 'pressure', but we can look at how various teams respond badly to it.
Shoaib Akhtar once said that Pakistan thought too much of the game, and suddenly planned differently, when their natural instinct could have guided them home.
AB de Villiers, during the 2015 World Cup, wrote in his side's pass-on book:
"To those before us, to those to come/ Today, tomorrow, we'll play as one."
Nathan Lyon's palms get sweaty and fingers get hard and stiff as he waits for the ball to land in his hand, with Jack Leach out of his ground in the Headingley Test.
When teams get overawed by the situation they respond by forgetting their basics, and Pakistan and South Africa are prime examples of that.
With the Indian cricket team, though, that is far from the case. In 2014, they were outfoxed by the strategic brilliance of Lasith Malinga and Nuwan Kulasekara. In 2015 Australia were the better side. In 2016 they bowled a series of no-balls at the wrong time and were playing with a questionable strategy. A year later, the Indian cricket team's batting collapsed in unfriendly conditions against two swing bowlers at the top of their games.
In the period between 2013 and 2020, the Indian cricket team twice had gaping holes. One was their death bowling that was masked by their two exceptional spinners.The second was their middle order that didn't have to bat until that fateful 2019 semi-final because the top order would score all the runs.
The Indian cricket team's vulnerabilities were always bound to get exploited sooner than later by a quality team. The probability of exposure is much greater when they play a top-four side. And every time the Indian cricket team 'choked' in a tournament, the winning side was a better team than the fomer.
Granted, the IPL is still just a domestic tournament and the World Cup is the tallest summit of eternal glory. But as MS Dhoni once beautifully put:
"Pressure is like shouldering one hundred pounds."
After that, notwithstanding even if you add a mountain, you will not know.
Choking is one of the most misunderstood terms in cricket jargon. You can't have 'choked' when you've lost outright, your holes have been exposed, or you were not good enough on the particular day.
Choking is the inability to seize the big moment. It is the undulating fear of winning that arises from having not given yourself another option. Choking is having not imagined a world where losing was a chance, where your world wouldn't crash down if you didn't go back home as the winner.
You can't choke unless you're in that moment, and being in that moment has nothing to do with choking. As for India, they never were in that moment.
If there are players that require help with dealing with pressure, they're the Shafali Vermas punching through the covers with no feet movement after Megan Schutt talks her up. Or a Tilak Verma who drops a sitter at slip with hard hands and tearful eyes in an U19 World Cup final against Bangladesh. And all the hundreds of cricketers who're facing pressure first-hand for the first time in their lives in a big match.
That's what choking looks like, a la Alan Donald running Klusener out, Dale Steyn bowling length to Grant Elliot, or Shahid Afridi darting the ball down leg in a bowl-out.
If there was something that cost the Indian cricket team that day in the 2019 World Cup semifinal, it was not ever giving a number 4 batsman a long rope. If there was something that cost India in 2015, it was not developing a proper yorker, or a slower-ball bouncer.
It is when the Indian cricket team overcomes those nuances of cricket and manages to stay ahead of the sport, that they can expect to win a world tournament. Not when they don't choke.