Depression, wrote the novelist William Styron in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, is so “elusive in the way it becomes known to the self … as to verge close on being beyond description”. Without wishing to trivialise depressive illness, this description could also be applied to that mysterious sporting commodity we call form.
Form is constantly invoked but often without context or qualification, as if it speaks for itself, even though it clearly means different things to different people. It’s used specifically and sweepingly, sometimes in the same breath.
The Collins English Dictionary defines form as “physical or mental condition with reference to ability to perform” and “previous record”. There’s a big difference: the Queensland Reds were the form team in this year’s Super 15, yet their record over recent years has been woeful.
It seems if you performed well last week, you’re in good form. As inconclusive as it might seem, recent form is often regarded as more relevant than the historical record; hence the adage you’re only as good as your last game and the constant refrain from the public and media that selections should be based on form.
Coaches tend to see it the other way, believing that whereas form is temporary, class is permanent. When it comes to the crunch, most coaches value experience over form, opting for players who have performed in high-pressure situations even if their recent output has been mediocre. To further confuse the issue, the transition from being out of form to being in form can take place in the blink of an eye.
All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina was unconcerned that he had been no great shakes during the Super 15, telling the New Zealand Herald before the Springbok test in Wellington that “sometimes it just came down to one moment on the field, a pass or a run, and all the confidence and rhythm flooded back”.
It seemed to work like that for Cory Jane. With his hopes of making the World Cup squad hanging by a thread following a slip in the pecking order on the end of year tour and a miserable Super 15, the impostor was restored to his electric former self.
Sometimes individuals can make poor form work to their advantage by stripping their game back to the bare essentials, eschewing flamboyance and ramping up the effort and concentration to compensate for the loss of timing and fluency. This is sometimes called winning ugly, but as its advocates are quick to point out, winning ugly is still winning.
Sachin Tendulkar struggled for form on India’s 2003/04 tour of Australia. Going into the final test in Sydney, he decided he wouldn’t play off the front foot through cover or square on the off side at all. Even though these were productive shots, they were getting him out and he reasoned that the first step to making a big score was to limit the potential modes of dismissal.
He made 241 not out, of which only 53 were scored on the off side. There were precious few of the pyrotechnics we’d come to expect from the Little Master, but it was a fascinating display of technique, discipline and cricketing intelligence.
Form is the product of confidence and self-belief. What makes the greats great is consistent success, which is only achievable if you refuse to allow your inevitable failures to create self-doubt.
Before going into bat for the World XI against England, the great Indian all-rounder Kapil Dev told his team-mates at length and in some detail about the fearful pummelling he was about to administer to the English attack.
When he was skittled without firing a shot, his team-mates assumed the Kapil who would return to the dressing room would bear little resemblance to the peacock who had pranced out to the middle.
Kapil sat down, took off his pads and embarked on a long and detailed account of the majestic innings he would have played if he hadn’t had the extraordinarily bad luck to get an almost unplayable ball before he’d got his eye in.