Thursday 4 July 2013

Are teams affected by their past?

History matters to those who love cricket. Fans and commentators obsess over statistics and old stories, while TV analysts and tweeters thrill themselves with footage from the past.

But what about the players? With old failures and successes just a laptop away, it is harder than ever for them to escape their history. If one particular team or cricketer struggles, we're quick to pounce on weaknesses. Think choking South Africans or Kevin Pietersen and left-arm spin.

Are tropes like these just commentary clichés or is there something more? Do past defeats haunt future performances? Can teams even remember together, or does each individual carry their burdens alone? These are the questions all teams confront, and ones Michael Clarke's Australians will need to answer before the Ashes double header begins in July.

Clarke has played in four Ashes series, and lost three of them. Five of his colleagues have played England in the past but only in losing series. It is one of the many ways the teams have flipped positions from a decade ago.

Through the '90s, England's players would prepare for their biannual mauling with nothing but defeat to guide them. When, by 2005, they had a youthful team capable of overcoming Australia, Michael Vaughan didn't want a dressing room crowded with past disappointments. It meant Graham Thorpe - a veteran of five defeated Ashes campaigns out of five - was dropped for a callow Ian Bell. England's series win justified the decision, but it's doubtful whether Thorpe's presence would have really harmed Vaughan's chances.

After South Africa's recent Champions Trophy semi-final flop against England, their coach Gary Kirsten was quick to cite the c-word. South Africa's history of semi-final defeats was enough for Kirsten to blame that common curse. Similarly, in 2012 when England lost Tests to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, the conclusion was that they had a collective - and historical - weakness against spin bowling.

Yet for Bill Filby, a sports psychologist at Brighton University who works with the Sussex county team, too much is made of the past. "As a group your confidence is related to, and influenced by, past performances in similar situations," he says. "So if you had exactly the same players, playing in exactly the same conditions against exactly the same opposition, then of course [past results] would be expected to have a significant impact. But defeats from four years ago in different situations shouldn't really make much of a difference."

On the surface it sounds reasonable. Yet why should sports teams be immune to history and culture when other groups are not? Countries draw on founding myths and symbols of collective meaning to maintain certain ideas about themselves. Similarly past traumas scar nations and affect the decisions societies make. The memory of 1920s Germany contributes in some part to creating a country terrified of hyper-inflation and mass unemployment.

According to Filby such group dynamics are not that significant in cricket: "[It] is a team sport in name but really each moment is an individual battle." Forget no "I" in team, there is no team in "I". That's certainly an appealing idea to sportsmen intent on scripting their own destiny, and useful to the management teams that insist they can help.

But reputations matter. Australia are no longer the best side in the world and their once revered system is failing to produce the high-quality players of old. Yet to a generation of players, coaches and fans around the world, memories of Australian dominance still burn bright. You only need to look at the over 30 Australians in the last IPL, and the dozen-odd who will feature in county cricket this summer.

Similarly the history of Pakistani cricket suggests the presence of an ineffable collective force. When they enter one of their haal moments, clicking into their unique zone where they summon opposition collapses out of the ether, are they not drawing on a cultural memory deeper than any one individual's experiences? It is something as difficult to quantify and control as it is to ignore.

The effects of winning or losing linger well after the stumps are drawn. Australia's reputation - especially after their off-field shenanigans - is creaking. If over the next two series they make it five Ashes defeats out of six, it will take a long time to repair.

This blog was first published on Cricinfo's Cordon

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