Could Mental Toughness decide the Ashes Test Series?

The first Ashes Test starts in Brisbane in less than a week so I thought it might be a good time to consider the potential importance of mental toughness in determining the outcome. It wasn’t too long ago that I was discussing a research paper that concerned mental toughness in elite England cricketers – when with characteristic Australian humour one academic pointed out that combining mental toughness and English cricket represented an oxymoron. Times change, and I can only hope that the same academic has enjoyed eating his “humble pie” over the last few years. Nevertheless, despite enjoying the 3-0 series win in England, like many England supporters I expect a closer series down-under. While most experts seem to believe England has the more talented players, the impact of home-advantage should not be over-looked. Given the “Stuart Broad” incident and subsequent “call to arms” by Darren Lehmann, the Australian team and crowd are likely to be sniffing revenge.

Test cricket in many ways provides an ideal setting within which to study mental toughness. Test matches (and Test series) last a considerable amount of time and take place under the media spotlight. Researchers have highlighted “critical incidents” that can facilitate or disrupt the development of mental toughness within sports people during their early career. But there are moments within matches and within a Test series that are defining, where the whole result is on the line, and it’s in these moments when the toughest characters usually emerge. It’s one thing having skill and technique, it’s another thing producing your best when your team really need you.

To me, mental toughness shows itself most clearly in times of adversity, when things are not going so well. If we look at what happened in the last Ashes series, there were several moments when the match was drifting one way or the other. The eventual score-line, didn’t necessarily present a true picture of how closely the teams were matched. There were moments when Australia were on top and looked like they were on course to win Test matches. In the past these were the moments when Warne or McGrath had England under pressure, and there was no let-up – they finished the job and seized the moment. In the last series at times the England batting was fragile, semi-collapsed but the Australian bowlers couldn’t quite deliver the “knock-out” blow. Was this an Aussie failure or a sign of new English resilience? We may see in the coming months, but in the last series when “backs were to the wall” it was mostly the England players who managed to wrestle back the momentum and when in a winning position there was a ruthlessness about finishing the job. To me, producing your best when it counts most, and not letting your opponent get out of a tight spot are indicative of mental toughness.

The winning team will be made up of the players who are better able to control their minds and bodies under severe pressure; the ones who can handle the “sledging” without being negatively influenced. It’s going to provide interesting viewing. How do the bowlers respond after a poor spell, when they concede plenty of runs and the Captain makes a change? How will the batsmen cope with coming to the crease after a clatter of wickets; when the bowlers are on-top? How about when facing a bowler that has taken your wicket several times in the recent past? Who will control their emotions, hang-in when the opposition is on a “hot streak”, and hold the innings together? In the last series it was Bell in particular that delivered for England. If Australia are to win, then Clarke is going to have to be inspirational (but he is a class act). Swann and Broad were bowlers who never seemed to get too down when things were going wrong, and seemed to maintain the belief that even if a wicket had not fallen for half a day, one wicket was the only opening necessary. Once your foot is in the door (so to speak) it’s time to wrench the whole thing open. The Australian bowlers can cause England problems, but do they still have the mental toughness to close out tight games?

Interestingly, the main mental toughness research groups reside in the UK and Australia so there are likely to be some very interested spectators among these ranks. I don’t think there is much to choose between the teams so mental toughness could be the deciding factor. In the recent past players in the England team have been the one’s to demonstrate the tenacity and resilience needed to win, even when perhaps not playing at their best. I expect the Australians to be better than in England and as such a closer score-line is likely. I’m backing England to just edge the series, but more than the result, I will be watching to see how players on both sides handle the pressure in key moments. Enjoy!