If India has chosen confrontation as a tactic, then it isn’t working, writes Rohit Brijnath

If we put aside the argument over the definition of aggression and value of manners, and stop wondering how Andrew Symonds, brilliant no doubt, has the effrontery to lecture anyone but the mirror, it is worth asking: is India’s so-called standing up to the Australians a tactic? And if so, how many players are part of it? And if it’s a tactic, is it working? The scoreline, after all, says 4-1.

Coaches love to tap their temples and say sport is all mental. If you don’t think, you can’t win. If you prod at an opponent, annoy a rival, want to make a statement, it should have a calculated purpose. Provocation for the sake of it is wasted time, as part of a game plan (disturb a rivals’ equilibrium) it makes some sense.

Champions are often bullies, as the Australian cricket team has been. They will hector, tease, test, abuse, challenge, and while it is often unmannerly, it has proved effective. Because their intimidation is served alongside throttling performances and this one-two combination leaves opponents winded.

Lesser teams ache to tame champions. Sometimes, tired of being pushed around, they think, if we talk tough, they’ll know we mean business. But this requires preparation.

If you want to play the opponent at a game he’s very good at (i.e. provocation), you have to play it smarter than him. And if you’re going to challenge him loudly, you have to back it up with skill at full volume.

Can backfire

Trash talking has a sly tendency to rebound, for challenging champions is like feeding the beast. Golfer Stephen Ames suggested Tiger Woods’ swing was erratic last year before their world matchplay showdown, and Tiger’s response was a brutal seven birdies in the first nine holes.

When a young player mistakenly sledged Michael Jordan, his coach frantically pulled him off court but it was too late, and Jordan, inflamed, put on a show. Tendulkar is almost never sledged because his response is quietly savage.

The Indians this series haven’t distracted the Australians but instead given them a cause. It’s not that the hosts should genuflect, or tip-toe around their rivals, but their response must be measured. Sourav Ganguly’s finest moment was his realisation, in 2001, that he could aggravate Steve Waugh. He used his weapon well, but it was a series won because the Indians played consistently tough cricket. India hasn’t been soft since (erratic, yes), yet every defeat resurrects that label amongst the shortsighted.

A fine instance

Swagger in sport can be intriguing, but in itself it is not enough. Proof of this is Muhammad Ali’s demolishment of Sonny Liston in 1964 which should hang in a museum of psychological warfare.

Ali taunted Liston, accosted him in a casino, went to his house, and once bragged: “The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s going to fight me, he needs falling lessons.”

His erratic behaviour convinced Liston of two things. That Ali was crazy, and scared. As David Remnick wrote in King of the World: “Traditionally, anything but the most stoic behaviour meant that a fighter was terrified which was precisely what Ali wanted Liston to believe.”

Ali’s cockiness confused Liston, but Ali was more than cocky. He trained ferociously. Watched fight films. Devised a fight strategy. He was scared but confident in himself. He had done the work. His skill backed up every statement his mouth made. It’s what Dhoni’s team needs to do.

Perhaps the confrontations this series haven’t been a tactic, but some chatter between the benches at the Twenty20 World Cup that spilled over into the 50 overs.

Add the odd unworthy comment from the Australians about the celebrations, and suddenly it was out of control, and ego disallowed anyone from taking a backward step. One reason India needs a coach is to ensure an adult voice is there to calmly direct ambitious young men.

India is going to master Australia one day. But India will do so not by sledging as capably, but by bowling as well, running as well, throwing as well, fielding as well, batting as well, training as well. That is the best tactic.

The toughest teams after all are the winning ones.

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