After being in the news for all the wrong reasons, England’s cricket team is in Australia preparing for the Ashes. The beleaguered squad is viewed by pretty much everyone as underdogs following the loss of star player Ben Stokes due to a disciplinary matter.
For fans in England or Australia – or pretty much anywhere else cricket is played for that matter – the Ashes is laden with significance. The contest dates back to 1882, when a touring team from the then colony of Australia beat England, prompting a satirical obituary “in affectionate remembrance” of English cricket in a British newspaper. Since then, Ashes tours have become for players and fans alike, a barometer of national pride for the two countries. And, at the moment at least, Australia is claiming bragging rights in expectation of giving England a good thrashing.
Given the recent examples of underdogs overcoming their limitations in other sports – Leicester City Football Club, for example, going from relegation fodder to English Premier League winners; Danny Willet winning the US Masters while ranked 102nd in the world, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years – it’s worth asking whether underdog status is good or bad for the English cricket team?
An underdog is defined as an individual or group that is at a disadvantage and expected to lose. So there are two intertwined elements to being an underdog that are worthy of further consideration. First, underdogs are those considered to be at a disadvantage compared to their opponent – whether it is because of fewer resources, a smaller reputation or, in the case of England’s Test team, the loss of a star player.
Second, underdog status can be achieved through lowered expectations and an anticipated loss. The lowering of expectations can often lead to commentators or pundits viewing the underdog in a positive light. Watching an underdog achieve can be a massive source of inspiration – after all, it is the uncertainty within sport that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Hence, underdog status may not be such a bad thing for the England players.
Team cohesion is often defined as the sum of the forces pushing in from the outside and the bonds within the group pulling it together – and, in Australia, it is likely that this push/pull effect could be maximised. Both on and off the field of play, the England players will be exposed to sledging – the verbal abuse usually directed at individual batsman by the majority of the fielding team.
In an Ashes series, probably the highest-profile cricket encounter globally, the sledging will be from players, crowd, pundits and probably the Australian media as a whole. However, if well prepared for, these external forces directed at the England players, could be used to pull the group together to form a very tight unit and even strengthen the team’s resolve: “The whole world is against us, but what doesn’t kill us, will only make us stronger.”
Another psychological concept that will loom large in the context of the Ashes, will be the home advantage. The phenomenon that the home team (in most aspects of sport) tends to have an advantage because of greater crowd support, a better working knowledge of the pitch, and the local facilities.
In most circumstances, these factors would lower the expectations of success for the away team but might increase expectations for the home side. Interestingly, the heightened expectations of the Australian players, among both the public and media, could work against them.
If, in the somewhat unlikely event that things go England’s way, these expectations could see the crowd and the pundits quickly turning on the Australian players, whereas conversely, the reduced expectation – and hence pressure – felt by the England players, may have a liberating effect.
All in the mind
The Ashes series will be the ultimate test of the England player’s mental toughness. The England Cricket team should expect adversity to come from every direction, the media will be “in their face” 24/7, the crowd will be constantly on their back and it is likely that every element that the Australian management can control will be used to test the resolve of the England players.
For instance, it is likely that the pitches will be prepared to favour the Australian team’s preferences and even the itinerary may have been constructed to give the England players little respite. If England players can produce match-winning performances under these circumstances, they will truly be mentally tough.
Recent indicators are not favourable. During England’s 5-0 drubbing in Australia in 2013/14, Jonathan Trott – who occupied the key batting position of number three for England – left the tour early for stress-related reasons having been hit by a delivery from Australia’s super-fast bowler Mitchell Johnson. The oft-trumpeted Australian tactic of “mental disintegration” – uncompromising cricket on the field and a constant barrage of abuse off the field – had helped to claim an important scalp.
However, with most aspects of preparation and the occasion being weighted in the Aussies favour, legendary status and a hero’s welcome home awaits a winning England team. If the underdog wins, the repercussions will rumble around “down-under” for a lifetime – Australian pundits still smart at the memory of the 1986/87 Ashes tour when a team from England that “can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field” returned home holding the Ashes urn. Given the hype in the Australian press this time around, an England win would be truly memorable.