KKR vs Mumbai Indians: Did they choke or panic?

Thirty-one to win in five overs. One to win off four balls. These are the kind of situations when coaches are allowed to sink into their recliners. Viewers turn off their televisions and go back to finishing tasks they had left incomplete.

Last night, Kolkata Knight Riders lost their game from a position where victory had wrapped itself in ribbon and knocked on their doors. Even accounting for a two-paced Chepauk pitch, a middle-order of Eoin Morgan, Dinesh Karthik, Shakib al-Hasan, and Andre Russell should have seen them through. Instead, none of them managed to cross into double-figures.

The most common deduction in the seventeen hours since has been that Mumbai Indians just know how to win games. Give them an inch and they will make it a kilometre. Champions’ instinct, the kind of blood that runs in your veins after five title wins in eight years.

But Mumbai Indians didn’t bowl out of their skins. For the most part, they did not have to. So how can this victory rest solely on their title-hardened shoulders?

Choke vs Panic

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article, titled The Art of Failure, in the August 21, 2000 edition of The New Yorker. He began the piece with a story about the Wimbledon finals of 1993. Jana Novotna was serving, 4-1, 40-30 up against Steffi Graf in the deciding set. A stroll away from the most prestigious title in tennis, she forgot how to walk. Her next two serves hit the net. Soon after, Novotna was finding trouble hitting a basic forehand return. Steffi Graf knew how to win and did not need a second invitation.

At the biggest stage, under intense pressure, Novotna choked. Gladwell ends the first paragraph with these probing questions: Did she suddenly realise how terrifyingly close she was to victory? Did she remember she had never won a major tournament before? Did she look across the net and see Steffi Graf - the greatest tennis player of her generation?

It is tempting to see last night’s result through the Novotna-Graf prism. Two champion entities, on the mat, magically find a way to sneak the match away from their opponents. But last night was about Kolkata Knight Riders losing shape, just as the Ladies’ final of Wimbledon 1993 was about Jana Novotna forgetting how to play tennis.

There might be another prism that cricket fans of a certain vintage will never forget, which could help explain.

It is the World Cup semi-final and you need 1 to win in 4 balls. You are the Player of The Tournament by a mile. You have crashed two cover drives for four in the first two balls of this over. Up in the dressing room, your teammates are already in half-smiles, waiting to jump in celebration. Any moment now.

Under the shadow of victory, Lance Klusener did not lose sight the same way as Jana Novotna. One of cricket’s favourite examples of a choke was not a choke at all. It was the purest example of a champion player panicking.

Choking is about loss of instinct; panic is about reversion to instinct.

The human brain functions under two kinds of learning: implicit and explicit. Explicit learning happens when you are picking up something new. Think of Novotna and Klusener as kids, just learning how to hit a forehand or cover-drive. They honed their technique by repeating the same shot thousands of times until it became second nature.

That is where implicit learning takes over. Your technique is so well sculpted that you begin thinking of the touch and accuracy of a shot, the exact square inch of grass the ball should graze through.

In the semi-finals of Wimbledon 1993, or through the first two and a half sets of the final, Novotna wasn’t actively thinking about how to land her serve. But under extreme pressure, her brain switched to explicit learning mode, where everything seemed like a conscious effort. Like learning to walk after spending a few months on bedrest. 

Klusener went through something different. On the third and fourth balls of that over, his technique was true to form. In fact, Damien Fleming doesn’t get enough credit for nailing two yorkers under intense pressure. Klusener did well to dig them out with enough force to send the ball past the bowler. Instead, he had a dreadful case of reverting to the natural instinct of stretching for every run when he had all the time in the world. There was never a good reason for taking a risky single with two balls left. Given his batting form, one of them would have probably landed beyond the ropes.

Lance Klusener panicked.

Throwing It Away

Kolkata Knight Riders found themselves under a similar situation yesterday. An innocuous target, a strong middle order, and a rare victory against the best T20 team of all time. 

The Chepauk is big enough to encourage singles and doubles. Rohit Sharma opened the field up further by bringing in a slip and other close-in fielders. He could not have written the instructions for the KKR batsmen in bolder font. Then there is the Jasprit Bumrah Factor in every chase, but it could have been easily negated last night. Bumrah is at his best when batsmen try to attack him. That KKR middle order has enough collective experience to figure out safer options against him.

In turn, batsmen of incredible pedigree responded by playing the kind of shots that fit the over number rather than the match situation. They reverted to their instinct of slogging in the death overs.

Their openers should have done better, but I don’t think the KKR team need a lot of soul-searching after last night’s loss. It was a collapse that can happen to the best of players and teams. Eoin Morgan, Dinesh Karthik, and Andre Russell are World Cup winners. They know how to wade through the choppiest of waters. 

The problem, instead, was that there wasn’t anyone from the dugout asking them to breathe and take it easy. Did they panic too?

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