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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

India vs Australia: Where there’s Will, there’s a way

Having battled mental demons, 22-year-old Pucovski looks ready to take on Indians

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi | Updated: January 5, 2021 2:40:15 pm
will pucovski"Pucovski said he's ready - he's made two double hundreds. Pick him while he's in form. He has the potential to be a player for the next decade."(FILE)

Something was wrong. Will Pucovski could sense it. The feeling had been stalking him.

But this time, he knew how to confront the impending storm. He enrolled in an online workshop on breathing by reputed mind guru Max Strong for 150 Australian dollars. Later, he’d say this was the best 150 dollars he’d ever spent in his life.

“It’s just soothing, and you sort of feel unbelievably peaceful,” he tells former cricketer and footie player Guy Walker in a podcast called Athlete’s Diaries, where sportsmen open up on their mental struggles.

Pucovski’s struggles with what he calls ‘the voices in his head’ has been well-storied. It forced the 22-year-old into taking intermittent breaks from the game, even though he seemed utterly comfortable in the middle of the ground stroking a cricket ball.

It prolonged his wait for the Baggy Green. He’s learned to live with the voices, without them pushing him into dark alleys. But he couldn’t let the Baggy Green slip out his hands this time.

The ‘breath workshop’ soothed him and a potential breakdown averted. “It’s about building up your self-awareness, getting a gauge for your triggers, how to deal with things, and getting enough tools in your belt to actually be able to deal with it in a meaningful and effective way. It’s about accepting how you are,” he explains.

Before acceptance was defiance, when he thought he might get more relaxed with age and maturity. When he thought it was not a man-thing to confess his psychological breakdowns. But the longer he neglected it, the deeper it dug into his mind.

Then he got to a point wherein he just broke down. Strangely, it coincided with his record-breaking 243, the youngest Australian first-class double centurion since Ricky Ponting, against Western Australia at the WACA, a knock that instantly earmarked him as a future Baggy Greener.

He calls it the false innings, because he says he has never felt so much in the zone, but at the same time never felt detached to an innings. “I felt so pure from a mental point of view, when I was batting, to be real. I could deal objectively when facing every ball. Like, now the ball is there, I should play that shot. I felt robotic in that sense. It was almost emotionless where you probably didn’t think about what if I played a bad shot,” he admits.

But when he reached the hotel, he broke down and began crying. He hadn’t cried in almost eight years, and he was flat on the bed, wrapped in turgid coldness.

It was then that he decided to open up. The subsequent months were spent on a journey of self-discovery. In his pursuit for solutions he faced several questions. Was it just performance anxiety? Was it the pressure to be perfect? Was it due to repeated episodes of concussions?

It surely wasn’t a case of failure-triggered anxiety, for he was plundering runs. His is a classic case that it’s not failure or setback alone that goes onto unsettle a sportsman’s mind. Success, too, could.

His mind was in a whirl.

He sought the services of sports psychologist Emma Murray, who told him that “a lot of stuff the mind tells us is not actually true.” He then read the best-selling self-help book Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. It would help him to shut out the negative voices in his head.

Refreshed and realigned, he returned to cricket, reacquainted with the business of stacking up big hundreds, and is now on the brink of making his Test debut sometime during the India series. “I’ve stopped worrying; I have started to enjoy my cricket even more. I’ll have a few days or even a week or two, where I’m still struggling, but I know how to deal with this. I know, I’m allowed to feel low. And I know I can get through it,” he says. It’s the last line that’s turning out to be the most important line of his career. A line that was difficult to reach.

***

On the second day of the warm-up game between Australia A and Indians, Pucovski suffered another bout of concussion. The ninth of his life and the second inflicted by a bowler. It was not a ball with blinding pace but it climbed up at an awkward height.

He had enough time to pull or pull out too. Instead, he was stuck in a dilemma, and in that fleeting second of indecision, the ball pinged his helmet. It was not different from the first time he got banged on the helmet, by Sean Abbott in a Shield game. Abbott is not an express quick, and Pucovski had enough time to duck or pull. Still, the micro-second hesitation was enough for him to miss the ball. Both times, he eventually ducked but was a fraction late.

The first time he got concussed was during a footie game, when the knees of an opponent sunk into his head. His cricket coach and physics teacher of the Brighton Grammar School Gary McPhee clearly remembers that incident.

“He spent weeks lying on the couch in a darkened room with severe headaches and other symptoms and for a talented and social boy who liked nothing better than getting out and playing with his mates, this was a huge blow. It also affected his last year of secondary study,” McPhee tells this newspaper.

But he made a quick recovery, and bounced back strongly. “One of the first things I noticed was his composure, his mental toughness. It was his composure, determination, and maturity that allowed him to debut at only 12 years of age. Obviously, he had the technique and variety of shots to match his mental attributes. He was always confident, without being overconfident or big-headed. He was a quick learner too,” he says.

The youngest ever first XI cricketer of the Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne, he was also the brightest. “When I was told by a colleague that Will could play in our First team while still only a Year 7 student I thought “we’ll see”. A small tousled haired boy came to training but handled all of the senior bowlers with ease, he had so much time and his shot selection was always appropriate. Quietly spoken and polite, he immediately won the respect of the older players,” he says.

Learning-wise, it helped that he was born in a cricket-mad family. His father Jan was a fast-bowling all-rounder for local club Caulfield Cricket Club, and he initiated him early into the game. The earliest picture of Pucovski is him in his nappies cheering his father during a club game. Jan brought him a cricketing gear when he was just four. The pads were so over-sized that Jan had to chop the edges and fit a football shin guard underneath for extra protection.

He used to tag him along to nets and games, and by 10, he was hitting his father and his colleagues all over the park. “As a ten-year-old Will and Jan would head off early morning to spend the day playing cricket. Will was performing well in the juniors and looked a good prospect, but he was slaying them in the senior’s team. At just ten years of age, he boasted a healthy average of 50.4. Jan also produced a few entertaining cameos that season but he was clearly outshone by Will’s performances,” says Bryan Harper, his childhood coach and father of New South Wales cricketer Sam. Ironically, Sam too has a history of concussions, and they were called the concussion brothers.

Bryan was so smitten by the talent of his friend’s son that when the legendary Melbourne Cricket Club scout Doug Patrick came to watch Sam, Bryan was raving about Will and not his son. A few weeks later, Patrick invited Pucovski for a net session. He was blown off. “He wasn’t smashing them. Will was just playing the right shot to the right ball and moving his feet in the right position, no matter what was bowled at him. The mental and technical organisation that he brought to his batsmanship was exceptional,” Patrick told Fox Sports. He immediately inducted him to the famous MCC.

It was again his mental attributes of composure and coolness that first impressed Patrick, and a reason he strolled up the cricketing pyramid. He made transitions look so easy and on the back of three hundreds in five innings in the domestic U-19 series, he was picked for Victoria. He fitted in seamlessly, stroking a hundred in his fourth first-class match, a double hundred in his seventh, a second-innings half-century in the final against NSW to set up a title triumph. His conversion rate of one hundred in every six innings, of which three ended in double hundreds, are stupendous feats. And enough proof for selectors to rush him into international cricket. Yet, it’s his mind that flinched.

But McPhee has seen enough of him to aver that his ward will ride the recent storm. “He has been through a lot and he has battled manfully through it. He will come back stronger,” he emphasises. So hopes an entire nation.

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