Mike Hussey's 121 at The Oval in 2009 saved his career - he played another 42 Tests - but not the match for Australia
Mike Hussey's 121 at The Oval in 2009 saved his career - he played another 42 Tests - but not the match for Australia
When players stuck in a rut go into what they suspect will be their final match, how does that knowledge make them react?
Mike Hussey is next in to bat in the fifth and final Test at The Oval in 2009. The series is tied at one apiece and Australia still require 456 runs to win. The Ashes are all but gone. So too his career. The media are hovering, as are the thoughts in his head. Why is everything so much harder than it used to be? Why am I so tired? Every ball I face is just so, so hard.
Stuart Broad runs in and bowls to Shane Watson, who is struck in front. England's fielders go up and so does the umpire's finger. The Oval cheers and Hussey gets to his feet. For some reason the commentary from the TV in the dressing room is turned up, and Hussey hears former great Ian Chappell announce to the world: here comes Michael Hussey, a man who is about to play his last ever innings in Test cricket.
"You know what?" Hussey thinks to himself. "Stuff it."
He is not alone in that reaction. Of all those interviewed for this article, the arc of emotions and experiences as they headed into their final, career-saving or career-ending innings, mirrored each other almost identically. Over time, the pressure ramped up and so too did the feelings of nausea, misery and sleepless nights. Until eventually, finally, clarity would arrive in the shape of a near-drop experience.
"If it's going to be my last innings for Australia", Hussey says, "I just wanted to go out there, relax, enjoy it, and what will be will be. And it's amazing once you make that mental shift."
Sometimes the release leads to runs being scored, as it did for Hussey who made a career-saving 121, and in other cases, the axe is swung too soon and that sense of clarity is not allowed to arrive.
1, 0 and done: Ravi Bopara nicks in the first innings at Headingley in 2009; it was more or less the end of his Test career (though he did play three more matches, up until 2012)
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
1, 0 and done: Ravi Bopara nicks in the first innings at Headingley in 2009; it was more or less the end of his Test career (though he did play three more matches, up until 2012) Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"I got a phone call which said, look, we're leaving you out," says Ravi Bopara of his exclusion following the fourth Test of that same series in 2009. In seven innings he had a top score of 35 and made 1 and 0 at Headingley. "And it shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it did."
Bopara feels that had he played at The Oval, he'd have entered a sort of "tilt mode", a phrase familiar to gamers and poker players, when emotions begin to cloud judgement. It's usually used to refer to a player becoming irrational and reckless when performing badly, but it can also work the other way. With that fear of failure gone, you just keep asking for another card until you land on blackjack. Because who cares if you go bust?
But as it happened, when England won the Ashes in London, Bopara was over 50 miles away in Colchester, playing for Essex. He scored 201.
"I was an innings away," Bopara says with a smile that can be heard down the phone.
But if Bopara was deprived of the potential release on the international stage, he hadn't been spared the pressure. Going into that fourth Test, at Headingley, he knew his status as an England player was hanging by a thread. He just thought it was two threads rather than one.
"Going out at Headingley was like, phwoar - you just wanted to prove so much to yourself and you put yourself under so much pressure. And you know everyone's watching. You know that everyone's saying, 'Right, if he doesn't get any runs, he has to go', and that sort of stuff is in your head.
Back from the brink: Hussey followed his duck at The Oval with 121, made over close to six hours in the second innings, in which he was last out
Adam Davy / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Back from the brink: Hussey followed his duck at The Oval with 121, made over close to six hours in the second innings, in which he was last out Adam Davy / © PA Photos/Getty Images
"Your team-mates are watching you, your coaches, the opposition, the commentators, the crowd, the public, the people on TV. That's how you feel. All eyes are on me here."
It is this innings where the pressure is at its worst. The pent-up nausea is at its peak, with the frailty of your position in the side countered only by the dead weight that has wrapped itself around your feet and is pressed against your chest. Nothing feels certain except the fact that failure is imminent.
"Batters face tens of thousands of balls in their lives", says Jeremy Snape, former England international, psychologist and host of the Inside the Mind of Champions podcast, "but none matter so much as when they're getting close to getting dropped."
So we catastrophise, Snape says. The brain creates the very worst scenarios in an attempt to protect us, but in reality it does anything but, with the nightmare simulations only overwhelming us and preventing us from thinking clearly.
In a Test against England, New Zealand's Jeet Raval was in a rut that would see him dropped two games later. He was on nought when he got an inside edge onto his pad and was given lbw. However, such was his mental state that he failed to review the decision, forgetting that he could
"I froze," Raval said in an interview about it two years ago. "I remember while batting in that series, for every ball I used to keep thinking: 'I hope I don't get out this ball.'"
"Something we spoke about on the women's programme", says Mike Rotherham, a sports psychologist who was part of the backroom staff when England won the 2017 World Cup, "is judging yourself on how you want to fail.
"It might be things like, 'I want to judge myself on my bravery,'" he says. "Or 'I want to judge myself on how committed I was to a decision when I made it.' Rather than things like 'How many runs did I score?'"
Nick Compton is bowled in the first innings in Dunedin in 2013. In the second, he made a hundred, and Alastair Cook and he put on 231 runs for the opening partnership
Marty Melville / © AFP/Getty Images
Nick Compton is bowled in the first innings in Dunedin in 2013. In the second, he made a hundred, and Alastair Cook and he put on 231 runs for the opening partnership Marty Melville / © AFP/Getty Images
It is easier said than done. Sport, unlike other walks of life, has to have a loser in order for there to be a winner. It's a zero-sum, results-based world. Failure is ever present, which is why it is even more important for athletes to build a healthy relationship with it.
At the risk of oversimplifying, a sports psychologist's job is in effect to allow a performer to achieve a return to rationality. To untangle the dichotomy that this is a game that fundamentally doesn't matter, while it still defines players' lives and income.
Control the controllables. Trust the process. How do you want to fail? They're clichés for a reason.
"You get to a point where you realise that it is just a game," says Bopara, arguably speaking with the clarity of someone with a career behind them rather than ahead. "And you want to do well, like you do in anything you compete in… but scoring runs doesn't make your children love you more."
Nick Compton is sitting on the team bus, travelling from Queenstown to Dunedin, when head coach Andy Flower calls him to the front for a chat. It's March 2013 and Compton, four Tests into his career and with just one fifty to his name, is the man in possession of the opening slot, alongside Alastair Cook, but he isn't in command of it. The glimpses on a tough tour of India are enough to keep his head above water, but not enough to allow him a set of armbands and a rubber ring. One mistake may be all that he is allowed, with a young Joe Root poised to take his spot at the top of the order.
Ten minutes later Compton walks back to his seat with his position crystal clear in its fragility. He will be starting the two-match series but Flower can't guarantee he'd finish it.
"So I wasn't walking back to my seat after that chat thinking, 'Great!'" Compton recalls. "I sort of walked back and thought, 'Pffh… fair enough.' There's no special treatment, it's pretty black and white, so there we go."
A hundo for Compo: the second-innings 117 helped England draw the match after they conceded a first-innings lead of 293
Phil Walter / © Getty Images
A hundo for Compo: the second-innings 117 helped England draw the match after they conceded a first-innings lead of 293 Phil Walter / © Getty Images
A first-innings duck followed and the catastrophising began. The reality that another low score in the second innings could be the end of a childhood dream.
On the morning of the second innings, the psychologist with the team, Mark Gordon, asked him a question. If you won the lottery, and the prize was that you had one chance to open the batting for England in a Test, how would you want that experience to go?
Compton thought to himself for a moment before concluding: "I'd want to hit some f**king great shots.
"And when [Gordon] said that, it kind of relieved me a bit, you know, I just thought, f**k it, who gives a s**t man, just walk out there, be cocky, be arrogant, be matter of fact. Stop trying to be all precise and methodical. Just get there, stand still, do your routine and if the ball's there to hit, then smash it, and if it's not there to hit, then leave it."
Early in his innings Compton hit a textbook cover-drive, and then, not long after, a perfect pull shot, two moments that carried with them the relief of "Well, at least I got to feel that one more time." He would go on to score his first Test century.
He had decided how he was prepared to fail. And it was a method that allowed him to succeed.
"If I'm playing my last Test match", says one former international, "I'd rather get runs and stay in the team than get a duck and they win the game. And any player who says otherwise is full of s**t."
Cricket is unique in that it can sometimes pit the needs of the individual against those of the team. And never is this more apparent than when a career is on the line.
Players speak of their failures diminishing them in the eyes of their team-mates and opponents. Bopara said he thought the likes of his idol Ricky Ponting (far left), may have thought he was a bad player
Nick Potts / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Players speak of their failures diminishing them in the eyes of their team-mates and opponents. Bopara said he thought the likes of his idol Ricky Ponting (far left), may have thought he was a bad player Nick Potts / © PA Photos/Getty Images
The tales of success are the easy ones. Andrew Strauss' 177 in Napier in 2008. Cook's hundred against Pakistan at The Oval in 2010. Justin Langer in Hobart, 1999. Diamonds pulled from the depths of Mount Junkheap.
Less common are the tales of failure. Where that final innings wasn't one of redemption but of finality. Compton experienced both. The redemption of Dunedin in 2013, and the humane execution that followed his dismissal at Lord's against Sri Lanka in 2016.
The "f**k it" mentality was back, but Compton makes it sound as if this time around it was more forced as opposed to a natural, cathartic release. Outside the game he was in a poor place mentally. And it was affecting his cricket.
"The more I tried to find that Nick Compton, where the f**k is that guy, why am I not… you know, it's not who I was, and that wasn't how I played my best cricket.
"Looking back at it now, I reckon my grandmother would've done a better job," he says, only half in jest.
In his last knock he thrashed his way to 19 before edging behind with another big shot, the hope of kick-starting his career replaced with what had become a heartbreakingly familiar feeling of failure.
"I think by then I was pretty exhausted," he says, "the amalgamation of disappointment was so entrenched."
Compton also speaks of the feelings of embarrassment that accompany the sense of inferiority when the runs dry up. It's a theme that reared its head across interviews with regularity. The tricks of the mind as players feared their peers were thinking the worst of them, before adding that they knew that team-mates in such circumstances are almost at all times unanimously sympathetic.
It is a situation that follows players every year, even in circumstances such as those Zak Crawley found himself in this summer. Crawley confided in captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum that his run of poor form was beginning to mess with his mind, even though both had told him unequivocally that he would be in the team irrespective of his scores. Regardless of outside influence, personal pride still outweighs all.
Sweet relief: Alastair Cook's hundred at The Oval against Pakistan in 2010 came on the back of a run of eight innings where his top score was 29
Ian Kington / © AFP/Getty Images
Sweet relief: Alastair Cook's hundred at The Oval against Pakistan in 2010 came on the back of a run of eight innings where his top score was 29 Ian Kington / © AFP/Getty Images
Compton admits to feeling embarrassed around Alastair Cook, Bopara talks of the feeling of disappointment that his Australian opponents, including the likes of his idol Ricky Ponting, may have thought he was a bad player.
"A lot of it stems from identity," says Compton," and wanting to belong to something. And if I'm not in the team, then I'm not part of something."
This desire to be part of a group is as much an evolutionary response as anything else. As Rotherham explains, over the years we evolved in groups; that was the best chance of survival. And when rejected and excluded, we're vulnerable.
For Bopara you would assume this feeling of rejection was particularly acute. He played the entirety of the English summer before being dropped for the last game of the Ashes, missing out as England won in one of the most famous series finales of recent times. He was invited to the final-day celebrations but said no.
"To be honest, I couldn't care less if we won or lost that Test at the time," Bopara says, 13 years on. "I was so distant from it and fighting my own demons that I wasn't attached to it anymore."
"When you're playing Test cricket it's a very selfish game… [and] this game's always been about proving things to myself. It's been like that for the last 20-odd years."
He would play just three more Tests in total over the years, and he explains how his position has mellowed over time. With age, the sense of team has risen to the fore as opposed to the need to prove how far he could go. Were the Ashes celebrations to happen tomorrow, he says he'd go. But the 24-year-old Bopara who still had the world to conquer? "Not then, no way."
With that in mind, given the pressure and the childhood dreams at stake, would Bopara have taken a century at Headingley, with the guarantee of an England loss, to extend his career?
"Gave us half a fright, you did, mate": Andrew Flintoff congratulates Mike Hussey at the end of the Oval Test in 2009
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"Gave us half a fright, you did, mate": Andrew Flintoff congratulates Mike Hussey at the end of the Oval Test in 2009 Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"Ah man," he says, blowing out his cheeks. "No. No, I don't think I could have. Because it meant so much to them. It meant everything. And for a hundred? To lose the Test… and we lost the Test anyway. But to guarantee we'd have lost and I'd have got a hundred. Nah, I couldn't."
He speaks with the honesty of a man at peace with the events of over a decade ago. But there is one thing that still comes to his mind.
"I still haven't got my Ashes medal for that series!" he says with a laugh. "I did ask in the end, about a month later, and they said, 'Yeah, yeah.' But it's never come."
Five and a half hours after he walked out to bat at The Oval with Chappell's words still in his ears, Hussey was the last man out as England won the Ashes. When his team-mates came onto the field to shake hands with England, it was just him and one other in an otherwise deserted and silent changing room.
Head down, the relief that he could still perform at the highest level was tangible, but the exhaustion of a five-match series and the desolation of defeat even more so.
Twenty-four hours earlier Bopara had been in the same position. Exhausted after a double-century for Essex that wasn't "to prove anything to anyone but me".
Two centuries. One that saved a Test career, the other showing the potential of one that got away.
As Bopara had said all along, "Damn, I just needed one more go."
Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby
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