Short Stories: Tracing the rise of talented game changers who are primed for their time in the sun during this Australian summer.
That afternoon in 2015, Marcus Stoinis was about to catch a flight to India for a cricket tour. The previous night, his cancer-stricken father Chris felt dehydrated and went downstairs for a drink. Weak and dizzy, he passed out on the floor, where Stoinis, his sister, and mother found him six hours later, lying with a broken nose in a pool of blood.
“I spend two hours in the hospital, go home, pack my bags, and flew to India that afternoon. 100 per cent I didn’t want to go to India, I didn’t want to be on that plane. But I know if I am going, I have to make it really worth it. I did really well personally and proved a lot to myself. That’s when true mental toughness comes in, your ability to lock into a task, ability to get most of yourself when you feel like you can’t,” Stoinis shares in a podcast, hosted by kids from his old school, Hale, this April.
There had been many such moments with his father, who battled cancer for a decade before he died in November 2017. Stoinis was playing in a domestic match when his cousin landed up at the ground. He immediately sensed what had transpired, and his team-mate Adam Zampa embraced him, and both sat outside the boundary for half an hour in a quiet daze of camaraderie.
His father, his hero, was also the man who shaped Stoinis’ career, from infusing a love for the game to making important choices along the way. Like making him meet a sports psychologist. Like helping him shift states to further his career.
Stoinis, who had made his debut for Western Australia as a 19-year-old, had lost his contract. After meandering over a year with WA, he told his father in 2012 that they need to do something. His father suggested a switch in scenery.
The father and son first landed in Adelaide to try out at South Australia where former first-class player Darren Berry was coach. Stoinis was told that he can train with the first-class team but won’t get a contract for a while.
As the duo stepped out of the room, the two looked at each other, and the father went, “F**k that! you are not going to live in Adelaide!” Stoinis tells in the podcast. “And yeah, am not going to live in Adelaide. He goes, ‘where do you want to live’ and I say, either Sydney or Melbourne”. Stoinis ended up in Melbourne to play for Victoria, a decision which changed his career for good.
“Oh, you can’t make it in cricket … He is going to be a personal trainer in a gym … He is going to a university and end up in accounts.” Voices from peers around the time of the switch that still ring in Stoinis’ ears, a decade later.
‘I swear to god I still remember them,” the face wrinkles into a smile, “I still use that as motivation now.”
It’s impressionable kids he is speaking to, not just the two who are asking the questions, but the podcast’s targeted audience is children across schools, and Stoinis shares his mantra.
“If you are competitive, don’t let anyone say you are.” That’s something it seems he had heard a bit too often in his formative years. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If there is anything I have seen in people who are successful in what they do. it’s that they are unbelievably competitive.
“I always want to win; I always want to keep going. That’s me.”
Unshackling the mental chains seems to be Stoinis’ thing. “100 per cent” says Dave Diggle, his psychologist, an international gymnast in UK in his previous vocation. “Marcus’ dad saw me on TV and hunted me down. And I have been with him nearly a decade now, from around the time he shifted to Victoria.”
A lingering state of frustration can push one to find out what one really wants. Stoinis had two such long frustrating phases, first when he was out of contract with Western Australia, and again more than a year of being out of contract and not allowed to play in the second XI or even train with the main team in Victoria. “That was the most important time of my career. It was the first time I turned towards the mental side of things.”
Like setting goals, why he wants to be a better cricketer, what were his core values, what he wanted out of life.
“I have played 12 years of cricket now and if you don’t have those things, you can lose motivation quickly, it’s too easy to go off track. I was forced to learn all that through that period where I was probably lost as I have ever been in my life, but it ended up as being the best thing for me.”
It was a lack of consistency that was threatening to set back Stoinis’ career. “Why is there inconsistency? Because most performers perform on emotions,” says Diggle. “We look at his natural behavioural trait and we built a framework around it. That’s why you see a tremendously passionate guy on the field but someone who knows his way around those emotions, knows how to make them work for him.”
When Stoinis the batsman breaks free and discovers what he can be, like in his most famous knock of 146 against New Zealand in an ODI or in the numerous Big Bash games and a few IPL matches, we get a glimpse of that world where he makes the rules, where he is boss. It’s quite an un-Australian technique. At first glance, it does seem Australian enough with the expectation arising from the beefed-up physique that he could be all arms, but the lingering after effect is that of the surprising wristiness in his shots. It’s the big shoulders, the broad chest, the chiselled jawline that we first see. Stoinis looks imposing just before he gets into stance.
But then he almost shrivels up as if he doesn’t want to show off his physique. He sort of doubles up, curls up in his stance and squeezes into as tiny a space as his big body would allow. One can sense why he does it; as everything that happens after the bowler releases the ball is a recoiling reaction from him, a release of pent-up energy. Stoinis springs out and explodes as if that stance allows him to conserve all his energy which he then dissipates in an explosive recoil.
There is a certain nonchalance to his legside play, especially the pick-up and swat behind square that he plays after a tiny side-step to his right. The left leg hangs relaxed in the air even as he transfers his weight on to the backfoot and lets his wrists shoo away the ball.
That ease has to stem from some inner trust in his ability. “When you are under pressure at the crease, you revert to the most familiar thing to you,” says Diggle. So, the idea is to then make that familiar thing a mental pattern for performance. “So that he knows how to bat under pressure rather than react.”
In one of those quarantine evenings of team-bonding at the hotel, Delhi Capitals captain Shreyas Iyer does an impression of Stoinis. The swaying walk and the wide drop-jaw smile. In the background, one can hear Stoinis continuously guffawing. Both the drop-jaw smile and guffaw can raise impressions of artificiality in most, but don’t seem out of place with Stoinis. “What you see is how he really is. We have worked to achieve a state where he doesn’t need a facade, where he can be himself,” Diggle says.
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