Why does a team that has amassed 400 runs, played out 118 overs against a very testing bowling attack in difficult conditions fail to wipe off a deficit of 96 runs and get bundled out in 24.4 overs? The Sri Lankan team management would be the happiest bunch of people if they could find out the answer to this question. The truth is, no one knows the answer. For if anyone did, no team would be getting out so cheaply and that person would be able to earn millions of dollars selling the answer. However, the closest guess would be the one all too simple answer: pressure.
The pressure is on
One often hears the cricketers and the analysts talking about pressure in an international high voltage game, but is there no pressure in a football or rugby? Of course there is, and in many cases the pressure in a football game exceeds that of any cricket game, yet footballers don't talk about pressure that often. The main reason behind this is, in football, rugby or any other intense sports within five minutes of the game your body is warmed up and the initial nerves you have are overtaken by an extremely high heart rate. The same can be said about bowlers in cricket, after the initial Harmison delivery, most bowlers find their rhythm and hardly ever falls victim to pressure, most likely due to the superior heart rate.
However the case with batsmen is very different; unless you run hard at every single delivery the heart rate rarely goes high enough. And the build-up of each delivery mounts to the pressure, the thought of 11 players wanting to get you out and a bowler running in from 35 meters builds up the pressure inside ones head. And the 30-35 seconds between each delivery is just enough time for the batsman to think of every possible way he can get out. Add to that the odd sledging by the opponent and one's time in the middle can become quite a notorious period and lack of concentration can happen very frequently.
Justin Langer mentioned in a recent interview that a great batsman will always be able to focus fully on the next ball, and that can only be achieved when the batsman is able to get his thought process straight across and his body listens to his head properly. The former solely depends on the batsman and some very talented, promising batsmen have failed to live up to the expectations at the highest level and the reasoning in most cases is not inferior technique but perhaps mental strength. The latter on the other hand will happen to every batsman, and fades away when he hits a couple off the middle. The latter might not actually happen to a batsman who is in form and high on confidence.
And unlike every other sport, in cricket the negative energy from a player transfers to others. Hence, when a team is at 30/5, the ingoing batsman is already in a negative state of mind and the fielding team is pumped up, making the batsman's job even harder. Hence, when you see a slide, it is often very hard for the batting team to stop it as it is a lot like driving the car at 120km/hr and trying to stop it without using brakes.
Another mistake Sri Lanka made during last test was that they let panic kick in. Once a team goes into a shell and are scared of losing, they are just letting the other team dominate and the situation gets out of hand, and quickly too, resulting in a flurry of wickets with an abysmal scorecard to read.
The problem with such collapses is that regardless of how much you try to prevent such collapse they will happen. That is why teams as strong as Australia get bundled for 88 and England get bundled for 51. There is nothing to do about them. My advice to the Sri Lankan team and any team that has suffered a horrible day: just think of it as a bump and just go on with your regular processes. And to the fans I will say: don't judge a team based on a 'bump'; they have happened to the greatest teams. Cracking under immense pressure is what makes us human, and despite how big of a cricketer one is, these bumps let us know they are nothing but mere mortals.