Better performance through criticism

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NEW YORK, JUNE 06,
Some three decades ago, the Indian cricket team walked into the office of the newspaper I was with. It was both startling and fun. The players had come to protest against something the sports editor had written. The editor, a polite man, politely threw the players out after checking with the sports editor that he stood by his story.
Despite psychological gurus or mental stylists or mind minders (you get the idea) accompanying teams these days, not a lot has changed. Not many players handle criticism well. Or concede that sometimes it might lead to better performances. Sachin Tendulkar once memorably advised players to convert the stones thrown at them into milestones, but that does not come easily. Few players escape criticism, it is part of the sporting landscape, leaving no one unaffected whatever their record or standing in the game. At his peak, Gundappa Viswanath, one of India’s best-loved cricketers, seldom let criticism affect him, but while trying to make a comeback into the team, he tended to be sensitive.
Vaughan-Broad spat
When former England captain Michael Vaughan wrote recently that Stuart Broad ought to be dropped from the team (this was before the second Test against Pakistan), the fast bowler called him up to protest. Vaughan’s reaction was interesting. After Broad played his role in England’s victory, he said, speaking of the team in general, “If the criticism has geed them up to go out there and prove us wrong, great.
Why does it need criticism to get that kind of response?”
It was similar to Sunil Gavaskar’s reaction after he had said publicly that teammate Kapil Dev “would never score another Test hundred.” Kapil promptly did so, and Gavaskar explained his intention had been to provoke just such a response.
Players respond poorly to criticism by ex-players, perhaps feeling it amounts to a betrayal. Some years ago, the West Indian Denesh Ramdin, criticised by Viv Richards during an England series, scored a century, and then pulled out a piece of paper on which was written “Yea Viv, Talk Nah”. Not so subtle. And prepared in advance too!

Adverse reaction

Some players respond even more badly to criticism from professional critics, often suggesting it might be a good idea to see how the critics played fast bowling before taking seriously anything they said. Neville Cardus had the counter to such an argument when he said that one didn’t have to lay an egg to distinguish between a good egg and a bad one.

In the days before touring teams were cocooned, it was easy to tell who had criticised which player. There would be no cheery “good morning” at breakfast and a tendency for the player either to avoid the journalist or talk to him aggressively. Usually such things didn’t last too long; after all, the relationship is a symbiotic one.

Earlier this year, Tamil Nadu coach Hrishikesh Kanitkar said his team needed to be “more receptive to criticism”. It was an unusual thing for a coach to say, but it brought to public notice the manner in which reacting badly to criticism can sometimes affect a player’s game.

Criticising a player’s performance is exactly that, criticising a performance. It is no reflection on character or virtue.

Former England captain Mike Brearley put it well in On Form: “A low score may be the result of any number of factors, among which poor performance may have only played a small part, or none at all,” wrote Brearley. “Yet internally we may be over-sensitive to any hint of humiliation, and thus prone to experience the dismissal as epitomizing our overall weakness in ability or personality.”

Every professional is subject to criticism. The difference is that, unlike with sportsmen, it is not usually emblazoned across newspaper headlines or discussed on national television. Gavaskar said in an interview when Tendulkar quit one-day cricket that criticism might have prompted him to take the call.

In Better Living Through Criticism, A.O. Scott says, “The suppression of the critical instinct is one of the keys to the maintenance of harmony, civility, and a decent social order.” It is also a betrayal of the critic’s calling. Today everybody is a critic, and thanks to social media has a ready platform in which to rant about issues in language that not so long ago was confined to pubs or bars.

Chosen ones

Some players do tend to get picked out for special treatment. In his playing days, Ravi Shastri was one whose professionalism and aggression were constantly criticised. More recently, Virat Kohli had to make thousands of runs in different formats before the critics got off his back — much of the criticism had little to do with his game.

A critic is a creature of paradox, says Scott, “at once superfluous and ubiquitous, indispensable and useless, to be trusted and reviled.”

Players are creatures of paradox too. At once confident and insecure, qualified and unsuitable, national heroes and national villains. The player’s role is clear cut and unambiguous; the critic’s apparently less so.

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