Neil McKenzie stretches forward to defend
© Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'When I really wanted things to go well, I tried to control the outcome through OCD'

Neil McKenzie had rituals and habits that even the most superstitious batsmen would consider obsessive. He talks about why he did the things he did

Interview by Sidharth Monga |

Batting is a profession that can drive the best of them to insanity. The essence of it is ridiculous: wearing armour, you defend a little castle against 11 others. There are so many different ways to get out, so many variables to deal with, and if you fail, there is so much dead time in which to brood. There is hardly any other profession where you have to deal with so much failure, and not essentially of your own making. The toss, the pitch, the overheads, the umpires, everything has a say.

It's natural that batsmen are more superstitious than other players. And who better to explain the mindset than Neil McKenzie, who took these idiosyncrasies to an extreme, avoiding white lines, making sure toilet seats in the change rooms were down, taping bats to ceilings, avoiding looking at noughts just before walking out to bat. "It's a disease," he says. Yet the rituals also keep you sane, keep you believing that you have done everything you could, even if it doesn't realistically have any impact on the outcome. Nothing manifests the batsman's internal battle more than these fixations.

What is your oldest memory of observing a superstition?
It isn't really superstition. I think it's OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)*. I don't mind black cats and ladders and all that rubbish. Thirteen doesn't bother me. That is superstition. Mine is more OCD, where I have to do certain things to control the outcome.

Which would seem quirky to people who don't quite understand what you are going through.
It can be quite funny. Nic Pothas also used to be on the OCD/superstition path, so when we used to bat together, it used to be quite comical. I used to play with my crease lines to not play a loose shot. He would walk on his heels. When you are OCD, it is all about numbers and feeling right.

In cricket, we play in an uncontrollable environment. You have to train the way you train, trust your game plans, and more often than not, you are failing more than you are doing well. When I really wanted things to go well, in high-pressure situations, I tried to control the outcome by giving myself more of an edge, or luck, with the superstition.

Jonathan Trott celebrates his rearguard century, Surrey v Warwickshire, Specsavers County Championship, 3rd day, The Kia Oval, April 9, 2017 © Getty Images Heard of these superstitions?

Steve Waugh and Mohinder Amarnath kept red rags in their pockets on the field. Waugh used to call his a security blanket.

Sanath Jayasuirya touched just about every piece of his equipment before every ball. A host of Sri Lankans went on to follow suit.

Alastair Cook would always set the volume on the car radio to an even number.

When Sunil Gavaskar plundered West Indies on the 1970-71 tour, he enjoyed a fair amount of luck. Acknowledging it, Garry Sobers used to find a way to touch Gavaskar before a day's play, ending up scoring three hundreds himself. In the final Test, though, India captain Ajit Wadekar locked Gavaskar in a toilet to deny Sobers, who, though he had made 132 in the first innings, scored a golden duck in the second.

Mark Ramprakash would chew the same piece of gum through an innings, sticking it on the top of his bat handle if he was not out overnight.

Jonathan Trott [above] took vast amounts of time to get ready before every ball, incessantly scratching the crease and walking away.

Matthew Wade takes brand-new socks from David Hussey every time he is out of form.

Steven Smith has an issue with looking at his shoelaces while batting, so he started taping them to his socks.

When Zimbabwe's Grant Flower and Mark Dekker went to open the innings together, one always said to the other, "I hope you get hit on the head." To which the reply would be, "Same to you."

Then there's something about batting - one of the most fickle things in sport.
Ja. You are fighting conditions, you are fighting 11 other players, then you have two umpires, so there is a human factor to it. There are so many ways to get out.

In the early days, when there was something on the line, I was a bit more OCD. As I got older, I just backed my practice and routines. When you are batting well, if you have a ritual or a routine, two things happen. You either get unfocused and start worrying about OCDs by doing things that don't actually impact your play, and you forget you are actually playing. Or it keeps you in the now, in focus.

I used to walk a certain distance [between balls etc]. If I was on 10, I would start walking down further, then 20, then 30. It was 50 runs in the middle of the pitch. If I got all the way down, I got to 100. Some gardening, some walking. Different OCDs in different stages of my career.

How did it start?
Oh, as far back as I can remember there have been OCDs, in terms of how I like things. I like getting into bed in a certain way, closing the curtains a certain way. A guy like Lance Klusener, who used to be my room-mate - I used to get in the bed a certain way, and as I got in, he'd be touching my foot, and I had to start my routine again. He thought it was pretty funny. So there has always been OCD in normal life, but it comes more to the fore when you are under pressure.

It hasn't been like that for the last 15 years. When I was younger and playing, there was a little bit more OCD and rituals. In my own head it made sense. To anyone on the outside, it wouldn't.

You once taped your bat to the ceiling?
Myself and my dad, we pride ourselves in being good team men. My dad was one of the last ones to leave the change room. That's something he has passed on to me. I am usually the last one out. I have a cool drink and a beer and we talk about the game. I like mixing with my team-mates and the opposition. When we used to leave the Transvaal dressing room back in those days, I would sort of put [team-mates'] kit all over the shop - make sure that next day they had to look for their stuff. Just as a warning: don't leave the change rooms early.

This one time I had a birthday party to go to, and I left early. The guys decided it's payback time. I came in and everything was just hanging off the roof. Batsmen generally love their bats, and there was my bat taped to the wall, quite high. I had to cut it down. That day I ended up getting a hundred. So I taped my bat to the ceiling for the second innings. I got nought in the second innings. That gimmick got away quite quickly.

"I learnt far too late in my career to you trust your game plan. That's what I try to impart to the guys I coach, because I want them to learn from my mistakes"

If you got out early and then watched your team bat for two days, did you torture yourself thinking, "I should have done this, I should have done that"?
Once I was out, I was actually quite relaxed, because the moment was gone. But if we were chasing a target and things were getting quite tight, and I was sitting in the change room, I would definitely try to get a little bit of luck on our side. If I did something and things were going well… most cricketers are like that.

In As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson is very excessive. I actually laugh a bit when I watch that. And my wife. And hey, we argue about things other than men not putting the toilet seats down. I like things in their place. I just had it in a bit of excess.

How did people around you react to your rituals?
It has been entertaining for some and frustrating for others. Like, dealing with it from the outside, some people have misunderstood it. Now that I am coach, I can see why. When you are coaching, you want confident, assured guys in your team. I was never unconfident or unassured of my ability, but it came across that way because I was relying, because they thought I was relying, on superstition. I wasn't really relying on superstitions; it was a way of life for me. But I could definitely see how if there was a guy to be left out, then I'd be the guy because of the perception of coaches.

Sportsmen are proud people. They pride themselves on being good, not lucky. Do you guys talk about luck?
Sometimes it is not just your skill. It is about luck, and also about when you get luck. If I get my bad decisions in a Test match and I get my good decisions in a club match, they are completely different things.

I think it's about the timing. When you get away with something - when the umpire thinks it is sliding down the leg. Especially as a batsman, because there is so many variables that you have to deal with. It is about having a bit of luck and controlling that. I don't think it is a pride thing in terms of luck. It is a pride thing in terms of "the harder you are practising, the luckier you should be getting".

It is all about rituals, rhythm, consistency. I was towards the excessive side, but you show me a proper sportsperson and I'll show you they have their own routine and habits.

00 or 100: McKenzie made a match-saving 138 at Lord's in 2008 after nearly getting tripped up on seeing the double O's on his Gunn and Moore bat

00 or 100: McKenzie made a match-saving 138 at Lord's in 2008 after nearly getting tripped up on seeing the double O's on his Gunn and Moore bat © PA Photos/Getty Images

When you are in the flow, do you forget all of this?
There are certain targets there. Walking down the pitch, in terms of getting to a certain amount [of runs], which would keep you focused. But there were definitely times where I think I was a little too worried about not doing things or doing things, especially in the earlier days. I think it focuses you, but if you get on the wrong side, it unfocuses you. I think I was happy with it, but the coaches probably thought I was sort of a little insecure.

I got dropped after the [2001-02] Australia series where I averaged 40, second to Herschelle Gibbs, because we hadn't done well. It was [one of the] few occasions where I think I was the easy guy to drop.

Because you came across as not confident?
I wouldn't say not confident. I would say: not assured. I was very assured in my own ability. But when you get left out, especially when I was averaging 40 against that Australian line-up… I got left out for various reasons, but the next time you come back, you think you have to do more than you actually have to. You put pressure on yourself. With pressure come consequences. With consequences come more OCD.

It is more about perceptions. A lot of the times, guys don't have the stats. There are a lot of things you can present for or against for a selection. You see a guy walking up and down, he doesn't look assured of his ability, and in case of a tiebreaker, he ends up losing out.

You said the tendencies went down in the latter part of your career. But did you ever find yourself going back to them?
When we played at Lord's [in 2008], it was a huge series for us. I thought I would have to really work hard as an opening batter in England, so there was a lot of pressure. I got 40 in the first innings, bowled around my legs - a little bit of unluckiness. England slaughtered us. Kevin Pietersen got a big hundred. Ian Bell got 199. We had to bat out two and a half days. I put my pads on and I just didn't feel right - high-pressure situation. And from not having too many OCDs, it kicked in again. I just decided, something is not right here. I took my pads off and padded up again. The crowd thought we were delaying the start. We got a few boos out there. Little did they know it was not intentional.

"When you come back, you think you have to do more than you actually have to. You put pressure on yourself. With pressure come consequences. With consequences come more OCD"

Was this about the double O in "Gunn & Moore"?
When I was padding up, I saw those two O's. It was two noughts, so I was doing it for Graeme as well. Lucky I did it, because he got a hundred and I got a hundred. Nah, I am just joking.

So what did you do?
I just removed my pads and then padded up without looking at the double O in the Moore. I looked at the M and it looked like a "1". The 1 and two zeros suddenly becomes a hundred. We ended up saving the Test. Then you know when you have had the highs, when you are padding up the next time, you are not looking for the noughts, you are looking for the hundred. You always have that inkling to go back to your OCDs.

Are you a gambling man, by any chance?
I do like gambling. I am not a big gambler, but I do like sitting around a table with good mates and throw a bit of pocket money. I love numbers.

Sometimes, I think - ask my friends - I sit with guys and I look and say, 29 is coming up now, and 29 comes up. Then they look at me, looking for the next one. I always get the number right when I have no money on.

But when you put your money down, do you have these OCD habits? Like some people go multiples of seven…
I have just some favourite numbers on the roulette wheel, like everybody. When I play blackjack, they have a thing called perfect pairs. It's a side bet. I always look for perfect pairs because I love double numbers.

So you have lost the toss, you have been put in, you are the opening batsman, there are about 25 minutes before you bat. What do you do?
By then I have dropped the OCDs. You'll probably see it inside. Just got those routines. I can watch Keshav Maharaj and can tell that he has a bit of OCD in him. He doesn't unpack his bag. Every day all his stuff is back in his bag.

"Cricket is such a mental game. All said and done, it is a tough game. You really try to control it" © Getty Images

Did you ever feel you would have been a freer man if you didn't have it?
Yeah. It's more frustration. You use up quite a bit of mental energy. If I could get rid of it [I would have]. It is not an easy thing to get rid of. My family had to come along, my kids had to come along - there is a lot of bigger picture that had to come in [for me to not obsess over these habits].

Mentally, it can get quite draining. You can't just sit and watch your game. You get up and make a coffee or something. At least the team didn't suffer.

Did you have the rituals when you fielded?
It depends on the game. It only happens in high-pressure situations. When, in your head, you perceive it meaning so much.

Even commentating for the World Cup [2015 semi-final] - South Africa were doing really well, then the rain came down and we needed a wicket. You self-talk: "You don't need to do something for them to get a wicket. You have got no impact on the game." But because you really want the guys to do well, it kicks in. Then you need a bit of self-talk: "Listen, I don't need this rubbish again. They are going to be fine. You have no impact on the game." I do believe it is a disease.

Did you think you were switched on and played fewer loose shots when the OCDs were in?
Definitely not. You will play loose shots no matter what you are thinking. But sometimes when you have gone through a bit of a run of form, you think, if I don't do this, I'll play a little bit tentative. Whereas if you have done it, you are a lot more positive, because you are thinking the outcome is going to be good.

It's the same as a bowler at the top of your mark. His captain is asking for a wide yorker, his coach has told him to bowl a slower-ball bumper, and his best ball is the inswinging yorker. He has a lot of options and he doesn't commit to any of those. As an OCD, if you haven't done something, you don't commit fully, thinking about the outcome. It was a big red flag for me going forward.

"I was never unconfident or unassured of my ability, but it came across that way because I was relying, because they thought I was relying, on superstition"

A bit like visualisation then. You are basically visualising yourself doing well.
Cricket is such a mental game. All said and done, it is a tough game. You really try to control it. You can see [it in Rafael] Nadal as well.

And in Goran Ivanisevic. When he won Wimbledon, he watched Teletubbies every day and ate the same meal at the same restaurant.
So you can't say it is messing with his mind. It is also relaxing. It can take you away from the pressure. You have a process that you are following. That's when it works very well for you. But there is a lot of times when it doesn't.

It is something like when Virender Sehwag used to sing to himself between balls.
I'd like to ask Sehwag if he ever changed his song.

He would sing whatever came to his mind.
For me, the OCD would be: I'd be singing between balls, and if I didn't make runs on that song, that song would be binned. I'd get a new song.

Did you envy guys who would pick up any bat, pad any way, and just go out and play?
I don't think anyone can do that, really. Even a guy like Gary Kirsten, who didn't keep his kit the neatest or look after his bat. I had to shave his bat and clean it for him when he stuck things on. Even he had a few routines, how he padded up and how he got ready and focused and how he practised. Even your messy guys in the change room, it looks like they are messy and don't care, but they have their own organisation in their heads.

Deep within their selves there is some darkness, somebody telling them to do it.
Yes, there is something (laughs).

Do you know anybody who had no OCD?
No. Everybody has got some type. Ideally, you want a routine to make you more consistent. You don't want OCD. I don't know, I am not a doctor, there is a bit of a grey area. I'd like a routine to keep your mind consistent. OCD is when you think, if I don't do this, something's gonna happen.

"I didn't do the OCD just when I hadn't scored runs. I also did it when I scored lots of runs and was feeling overconfident" © PA Photos/Getty Images

Do you feel that as a coach, you can help players out with these things?
I'd obviously chat to the person to try to - not get rid of it, curtail it a little bit. You can't just get rid of them. I want you to keep your routines but I don't want you to become OCD. Where's the grey area? As long as it is not impacting someone else's game, and it is not distracting your team-mates, which you never really know. If someone ever came to me and told me, listen, you are distracting me, I would have probably curtailed it. That never happened.

The biggest thing for me is, you have to trust your game plan. Coming from me, it sounds a little wishy-washy, but if you trust your game plan…

I didn't do the OCD just when I hadn't scored runs, I also did it when I scored lots of runs and was feeling overconfident. You don't want to give that form away. I want another hundred. Another hundred. Another hundred. And then you put more pressure on yourself.

I learnt far too late in my career to trust your game plan. That's what I try to impart to the guys I coach, because I want them to learn from my mistakes. Know what you can and can't do in terms of shots. For that you need to practise everything to see what you can and can't do. But then get a game plan for a certain bowler - the guy spinning the ball in, the guy spinning the ball away. The best players in the world - their coaches know what they are going to do.

Whether you are overconfident or underconfident or if it is a semi-final or a final or a club game or a mess-around game, basically trust your game plan - that if a ball lands in that area, you play the same shot whether it is a block or a slog or a drive or whatever; whether it's a Monday or a Sunday; whether you are fighting with your girlfriend or not. When there is pressure, when there is all these other things, you trust your plans.

*McKenzie has not been clinically diagnosed with OCD

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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