Panic and freeze: a recipe for humiliation

A batting collapse, such as that suffered by Sri Lanka on Tuesday, is not just a batting collapse it is a more fundamental failure. Nothing shines a light so bleakly upon a team’s soul and spirit as the kind of events that took place on Monday afternoon. It was an abject failure of nerve, the ultimate in mental disintegration. There is no way back for Sri Lanka.

The anatomy of a collapse is a curious thing. There is no one particular moment that you can say with certainty starts the rot, rather it is usually a culmination of events: poor or lazy decision-making, sometimes ill-fortune; a moment of madness, and a lack of awareness of the possibilities to come. One batsman’s failure brings on another’s, until there is the unmistakable whiff of panic at which point there is a collective failure of will, a freezing if you like, events unfolding rapidly thereafter, the situation seemingly out of control.

As sport is a contest between two teams, there is a Newtonian reaction. Confidence drains away from one team, as rapidly as water from a plughole, and so it surges through the other, as if a transfusion has taken place. Quick bowlers seem a yard quicker, the spinners more cunning, the catchers more alert and the pitch more capricious. Since, inevitably, batting collapses are accompanied by attacking fields, there is the sense of strangulation, the two batsmen outnumbered by forces that appear to be swarming everywhere.

In one of his quasi-academic essays, the writer Malcolm Gladwell analysed the differences between choking and panicking, looking at the epic failures of Greg Norman on the last day of the Masters in 1996, and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon three years earlier. Choking, he said, is a result of thinking too much, so that what was once ingrained and second nature is no longer; panicking is the result of thinking too little. As if, for a sportsman, the difference is anything but semantic. Panic? Choke? The reasons may be clouded in pseudo-scientific gobbledegook; the result is plain for everyone, spectators and opponents, to see.

Sri Lanka’s collapse exhibited all these classic signs. The morning rain induced a kind of mental flabbiness, producing what Mahela Jayawardena described yesterday as a no-win situation, where Sri Lanka’s batsmen could only play for a draw or personal milestones. Stuart Broad’s opening over, two deliveries of which bounced unevenly, suggested that the pitch was not docile, rather had been made to look so earlier in the game by Sri Lanka’s insipid attack. There were possibilities, maybe only the three percent chance of a result as recognised by Andrew Strauss, but a chance that England were aware of, Sri Lanka, sleepwalking to oblivion, apparently not.

James Anderson’s injury was irrelevant. Batting collapses are invariably the work of one, or two bowlers, the time-span being short. Curtly Ambrose springs to mind as a solitary wrecker, spreading mayhem against England in Trinidad in 1994 and against Australia on a trampoline pitch in Perth, when seven wickets fell for one run. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne together stifled England into horrid submission in Adelaide, Phil Tufnell and Andy Caddick did the same to Australia on a wearing pitch at the Oval in 1997. Batting collapses were not always an English phenomenon.

But the batting side is usually an accomplice in its own demise. With England’s lead miniscule, Sri Lanka needed to play judiciously, mixing defence with attack. Runs were still important, not that you would have realised it, watching them disappear into their shells immediately after tea. Jaywardena, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera, all averaging over fifty in Test cricket, hemmed in, unable or unwilling to play a stroke and when they did so, choosing the wrong option. In that sense, it was a peculiarly English collapse: feeble, timid, supine.

Then panic set in. The realisation dawned that they were deep in trouble and they went from being shot-less to playing in kamikaze fashion. They went from being England to Pakistan. Prasanna Jayawardena, so unruffled in the first innings, flapped at a short, wide ball that he should have left alone; Thisara Perera heaved at everything, Rangana Herath swept a ball he should have defended. Could have? Should have? Sri Lanka were overwhelmed, the absence of logical thought highlighted when Farveez Maharoof called for a review to a ball he had clearly edged behind.

A batting collapse highlights the fragility of one team, but also the ruthlessness of another. Half chances were snapped up, none better than the catch by Ian Bell at short-leg to get rid of Perera. When Broad replaced Chris Tremlett, he went for the jugular, literally, his earlier waywardness forgotten as he tore into Sri Lanka’s tail-enders with some extremely hostile and aggressive fast bowling. England had been granted an opportunity; they did not let it slip.

Cruelty is as much a part of sport as beauty, losing as much a part of it as winning. It was a cruel afternoon because the truth was there for everyone to see: Sri Lanka did not have the stomach for the fight, neither the technical know-how nor the competitive heart to withstand a rampant opponent. You can dress it up any way you like, and Sri Lanka will trot out the usual guff about four good days, one bad, but there is no getting away from the truth: England applied pressure and Sri Lanka panicked and then folded. When you have that psychological over your opponent, the game is as good as up.