Born-again Hamilton wins mind game

After the yips, a return to national service beckons
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The Independent Online

If anyone ever dismissed the frequently espoused theory that sport is played 90 per cent in the head, they should sit down for a chat with Gavin Hamilton, late of Yorkshire and even more so of England.

The name will be familiar for one of two reasons: either his superb performances for Scotland in the 1999 World Cup, when he averaged more than 50 and was subsequently picked for England's winter tour to South Africa; or his distressing demise as a bowler over the past two or three seasons, when he was attacked by the nemesis of all sportspeople - the yips.

He just could not bowl the ball down to the other end of the pitch, and for an all-rounder that is catastrophic. "It was terrible, really depressing," Hamilton admitted last week before flying to Dubai with the Scotland squad - for whom he is now back playing - for the ICC Six Nations' Challenge.

"It got to the stage when I had no idea how to try and solve it," he continued. "The harder I worked - and I did work hard - the worse it got, but others couldn't always see that. People would watch from the side of the nets and think I was bowling all right, but I knew it wasn't all right and I kept turning back to my mark terrified, thinking, 'When is it going to happen?' I knew it would, you see, it was just a matter of time. If you've never experienced it, then you have no idea what it's like."

Even harder to take was the fact that the yips had struck the player without warning. From a highly promising cricketer, averaging high-30s with the bat and mid-20s with the ball, straight to a nervous wreck.

"I have no idea how it happened," he explained. "I came back from the England tour really confident in my game. OK, I got a pair in my only Test [the first, when England were famously 2 for 4], and I was disappointed not to play any one-dayers, but I started the next season knowing I was a much better player. The next two years I did pretty well, but then it happened."

It became so bad that last year Hamilton hardly bowled a ball, either in anger or practice, and instead concentrated on honing his batting technique - and his mind, the chosen battlefield of the yips.

"I spent a lot of time with a mental coach in Cheltenham and talking to other people who had suffered something similar," he said, "and in America I chatted to some baseball pitchers who had lost it as well. It definitely helped. How do you explain and discuss it with someone who has no idea what it's like?

"The golfer Bernhard Langer's book was brilliant. He couldn't putt but he recovered - what a story. And the biggest thing I have learned is a change in my mentality. Before, cricket was everything, so when it went wrong it took me down, but now I know it is just a game and the best thing to do is to give it everything and then not worry about it."

Which is what he will be doing for a new club this summer, having moved to Durham from Yorkshire. "When I knew I would be signing for Durham this season I told them, 'I will leave no stone unturned. Come the end of the season I will have no regrets or I-wish-I'd-done-this conversations.'

"I will bowl and I know that one day, out of nowhere, it will go wrong again, but I have developed tools, mental tools to deal with it. That is the difference - I feel confident because I know I can attack it."

Whatever superstitions sportsmen and women have, one of the things they fear most is helplessness. Present them with a disaster but then with a solution, preferably one that demands graft and routine, and they are content - they work to targets. That is the attitude Hamilton presents now. He exudes control, aggression and purpose.

"The first of which is to do well for Scotland this week," he confirmed. "You know, for the first time in two years I am enjoying the game again - the training, the banter. I feel good. Durham and Scotland are a new start, the second half of my career. People want me to come back as well, which is a nice feeling. That's my goal, to be the second cricketer after Phil Edmonds to beat the yips."

Goals? Beating? The positive words are said with conviction. Mentally, Gavin Hamilton has prepared for his hardest challenge.