Allan Donald runs past Lance Klusener

In the '99 World Cup semi-final, Lance Klusener took charge of the chase - until things got really tight

© PA Photos
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Wordplay

When the going is always tough

In professional sport, pressure is not only inevitable but also welcome

Simon Barnes |

It always seemed to me a good idea to score as many runs as possible, but now I know why. You do so in order to put "scoreboard pressure" on the opposition.

I think that means the need to score heavily makes it more difficult to score heavily. The demand for a big score inhibits the batsman, making him too cautious or too reckless or too fast or too slow - and certainly more prone to error. That's pressure for you.

I remember shouting at my defenders when I was goalkeeper in a football team: "Come on lads, pressure, pressure, pressure!" To this day I'm not sure what I meant. It just seemed a good thing to shout. I wanted my lot to impose themselves on the attackers and make it harder for them to get a shot off. Make them feel that football was difficult, yes?

In a softball game I was watching in Central Park, the bases were loaded and the pitcher sent down a couple of off-target "balls". You don't need to understand all the technicalities - only that the batting side catcalled: "Pressure on the pitcher!" His own mistakes had put him in a difficult situation, making it harder for him to perform well. So add to the pressure and make it harder still.

Any professional footballer can kick the ball straight, but when it's the last kick in a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup final, it's different

I once read a book about sports psychology called Sportsmen Under Pressure, and I thought: isn't that tautology? Surely all sportsmen - all athletes - are under pressure. Pressure is why they do it. Pressure is why we watch it.

Keith Miller, former Australian Test cricketer and an RAAF pilot in World War II, famously pooh-poohed the idea. "Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. " This is an eternal truth of sport. You treat something that doesn't matter as if it was the most important thing in the world. Hence, pressure. The fewer your opportunities, the greater the pressure. A top cricketer plays many innings every year; an Olympic athlete has one Olympic final in four years, perhaps in a lifetime. That adds to the pressure.

I was helping a family after they had failed to get their horse onto a trailer for the big show. "He always goes on," they said. "But this day of all days…" And that's why he didn't go on. The family's anxiety about the special day communicated itself to the horse. It was an abnormal situation, so the horse behaved in an abnormal way. That's what pressure does, to people and to horses.

Some sportsmen wilt under pressure; a few, like Grant Elliott in the 2015 World Cup semi-final, thrive on it

Some sportsmen wilt under pressure; a few, like Grant Elliott in the 2015 World Cup semi-final, thrive on it © Getty Images

This day of all days… so much of the idea of pressure comes from that situation. Any professional footballer can kick the ball straight, but when it's the last kick in a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup final, it's different. John Terry took what should have been the winning penalty for Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final - and fell on his bum. The leader and legend had succumbed to pressure.

Part of sport's fascination is the way routine skills, hard won through years of training, fail when it really matters. In the final over of a T20 match, will the bowler be able to bowl yorkers? Or will they come out as full tosses? Will the batsman play the calm, sensible way his team needs? Or will he lose his head, swipe and miss?

But the greater part of our fascination with pressure is not those who crack under it or even those who don't. It is those who find pressure the most extraordinary release, in which case it is not pressure at all. We need some other word entirely, because for these rare people, pressure is inspiration. It does not press them down. It raises them up to great things. For them, pressure is a kind of freedom. It enables them to step beyond their daily selves and find something quite out of the common run. Some fight pressure; others bask in it and find their very best.

Sport is all about putting pressure - preferably unfair pressure - on people and seeing how they react

Usain Bolt is a classic example (though even he false-started and was disqualified at the World Athletics Championships of 2011). Roger Federer is another. Zinedine Zidane showed it at the 1998 football World Cup.

And, of course, there are plenty in cricket. Kapil Dev at the 1983 World Cup. Kevin Pietersen's greatest innings were of that kind: his counterattack at The Oval in 2005, and his murderous innings in Mumbai in 2012.

Sport is all about putting pressure - preferably unfair pressure - on people and seeing how they react. And every now and then, we find someone for whom pressure is not pressure at all. It's how they learn to fly.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

 

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  • POSTED BY Niraj on | March 23, 2017, 5:01 GMT

    Thats why temperament is more important than talent in highest level of Sport.

  • POSTED BY Jackwin on | March 12, 2017, 9:35 GMT

    I've got three words for you, sir - Mahendra Singh Dhoni!!!