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The two greats go head to head...

How exciting will it be to see two great cricketers go head to head today? At the end of this article, I will ask some questions about how they will perform. But before I do, please read my thoughts on Stokes and Kohli.

England’s 3-0 Test Series demolition of New Zealand Test team was impressive. What changed? There was a dramatic impact on the team by changing the Coach and Captain (see previous article). The team’s attitude and performance was incredible. Players were free and generated a wonderful team spirit and atmosphere. With players committing everything to the team, the results took care of themselves. Given England’s form going into the Series (one win in 17 Tests), it was an astonishing Series win. Difficult periods of play like losing 5 early wickets didn't stop England. We saw someone in the team (in this case Bairstow) do something special for the team. Such courage and fight back has been missing from the England’s recent performances. A big well done to Ben Stokes, Baz McCullum and the Performance Director Robert (Bob) Key (3B's). The 3B’s have alignment as leaders – they are on the same page - ensuring all players are pulling in the same direction. Great momentum occurs when there is player alignment like this. What conclusions can we draw?

1. A team’s freedom is System led.

A leaders reinforcement can inspire players to do something special. The focus on selflessness has given England players the necessary clarity. Under this new management philosophy, players have learnt to commit to selfless thinking. They are fully aware that Ben and Baz are demanding this. Playing for oneself has gone. Players know that they must give to the team or lose their place in the side. Such a powerful message transmitted with energy has completely transformed the team's performance.

2. The team decision-making is better when players think “team first”.

Batters played the right-shot-to-the-right-ball. For example, Bairstow’s decision-making was a delight to see throughout his hundred. When a bowler thinks “team first” they bowl the right-ball-in-the-right-area. The first 10 wicket haul by Leach is a great example of this. In this last Test he was able to bowl with greater rhythm and achieve great success. Watching the geniune excitement of every player celebrate with him was superb. His happiness was contagious. Let’s be clear, it wasn’t about playing positive cricket. A selfless approach enables good decision-making. Players know what is best for the team during every critical moments of play.

The obvious question is how does the team sustain such performance over time? Answer: Even deeper levels of selflessness.

This is difficult to achieve given our complexity. We are innately selfish as human beings. As a result, it takes more care and attention especially when the stress is high. It will take selfless leadership from the 3B’s to counter selfishness when it shows its ugly head. When a team starts to counter England’s selfless approach the question will be asked. How do Enlgand maintain momentum? We will have to see how the England team responds. Stokes is becoming even better person as a Captain. His care is there for all to see. Putting an arm around players such as Leach has been a touch of genius leadership to go along with his genius play. The true measure will be how he (and team) respond to sustained stress.

Will players default to selfish thinking? Or will they continue the momentum of “it’s not about me”? How will Baz respond when things get even more difficult? Stokes will have a big part to play in staying consistent if everything starts to derail around him. The great thing is his clear joy at being in charge and doing it his way. Stokes special aura and charisma is hard to ignore. It will be challenged in today's one-off Test match against India.

The Kohli Effect

I've been able to watch the Indian team at close quarters, in my role as Psychologist for the West Indies Cricket Team. I’ve seen a team pride itself on how it prepares for Test Matches. Under Virat Kohli's leadership, it was great to see the team preparation during Test Matches both in India and the Caribbean. Their showed high-quality work, whether in the gym or in the nets. Watching two individuals – one right arm and one left arm – bowling 90mph side arm deliveries was extraordinary. It was wow! Look at the demand on players in practice. It was like – “we will be ready for anything”.

I found it a strange experience travelling with the India team on the same chartered flights and staying in the same hotel at times. I’ve spent the last two decades working in professional football where this wouldn’t happen. Cricket is different. Opposition players socialise especially since the onset of the IPL. Imagine sitting there on a plane, having lost a match with the opposition right there next to you. Footballers would find this very strange indeed. Yet, it did give me ample opportunities to get to know the thinking of the opposition. In conversation with Kohli, it was always great to hear his perspective on leadership and building team spirit. Like Stokes, he leads from the front, stepping in and pushing the team forward with his sheer personality and strength.

No doubt he will have watched England’s selfless style and will be plotting a reply. Things, however, have changed for him. While Stokes is in charge and has clarity, Kohli is now not Captain of India and it’s not surprising to me that his form has dipped. He is a player in transition. It will be interesting to watch Kohli’s way of playing considering he is out of form and hasn’t scored a hundred since 2019. Although, it wouldn’t surprise me if he got his decision-making perfect for this match. Having watched him pile on the runs, it wouldn't take much for him to find his magical play again. Whilst he is not Captain, Bumrah is leading India for the first time as Rohit is out with COVID, his influence is big. The change in team dynamic could inspire something within him and he might return to form. He, like Stokes, loves the big stage. There is nothing bigger than a one-off Test match against England for the Indians. It will be fascinating to watch the power struggle between these two great players.

· Who will deal with the swinging ball?

· Who will impose their will on the other?

· Who will inspire their team and ensure other players follow?

· Who will grab the momentum?

· Who will choose freedom to express oneself?

It will all be revealed later today. I cannot wait to see how it unfolds and return to these questions in a future article.

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