The job for the nervous young Australian batsmen, Ricky Ponting was saying, is uncomplicated. "If you think about making mistakes and getting out, you'll get out. If you think about making runs, you'll make runs."
Ponting's sentiment is true. Imagine success and you will succeed. In fact it is so true, it passes through the true and into the axiomatic, and then leaps onto the self-help shelf, where it is known as manifestation, the law of attraction, The Secret, creative visualisation, and so on. Your thoughts create your reality.
The problem, by the time it reaches the ears of those nervous young batsmen awaiting their turn in Adelaide next Thursday, isn't that it's untrue. It's that it is spoken by someone with a one-in-20-million natural ability, gimlet-eyed determination, uncanny self-belief, and the luck to enter a successful Australian team where his early struggles were shielded by a surrounding cordon of Waughs, Taylor, Healy and so on. The story ends with 168 Test matches, 13,000 runs, 41 centuries and all the rest. In other words, by the time it reaches the ears of an anxious Marcus Harris or Aaron Finch or Travis Head, positive thinking sounds both blindingly simple and downright impossible.
Perhaps better role models were the men Ponting was inducting as Honourees of the Bradman Foundation, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. Much was made of the combined 53 Test centuries and bromantic partnership between the left-handers, who with Ponting formed the engine room of so many years of Australian ascendancy (Hayden referred to the prettifying middle order as "the interior decorators").
Less was made of the fact that Hayden and Langer both spent eight years in and out, mostly out, of the Australian team, derided, doubted, on and off the scrapheap, before they formed their opening partnership. From 1993 to 2001, Hayden and Langer were so often out of the Australian team that they only played a handful of Test matches together. Eight years of painful trial and error passed before their six years of success.
The lesson is not lost on Langer, of course, who must impart it to the Australian team. For his twenties, he was like them: on the brink of a short and unremarkable Test career, riven by uncertainty over whether he was good enough. Langer is a timely choice as Australian coach: he knows what these players are experiencing. The question is whether he can help them across that bridge from self-doubt to self-assurance.
Langer is big on his players 'being themselves', which seems a perfect antidote to the posturing of the past few years. But what if they do not really know who their 'self' is?
As he does so, Langer's chief task is to clear the noise from these players' heads. The tedious "aggression" debate – how much is too much, how little is too little? – is, for these players, one small subset of a wider challenge posed by the world they live in. Whereas Langer only had to deal with the doubt voiced by ex-players, commentators, journalists, and himself, the young men he is now looking after are downriver from a floodgate of opinion, some supportive, much of it insulting, and a percentage fuelled by hatred, let loose from normal constraints, at the player's expense. All of them have had a taste of it. So how does Langer help them shut out that noise, whether from a past player or one of Twitter's battery of Joes the Cameramen? How do they venture inside themselves and discover a self-confident inner life that has so visibly deserted the Australian men's team in all three of its formats? Somehow, this seems like the decisive issue to be resolved by the Border-Gavaskar Trophy contest.
For clues to what's really going on in there, I looked to Sebastian Smee's wonderfully intelligent Quarterly Essay, titled Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age. In sport as everywhere else, finding an inner life is what it's all about, isn't it? Smee finds his source material in Anton Chekhov's short story The Lady with the Dog, where the character Gurov has two lives: a false outer "sheath" that he shows the public to hide the hidden "kernel" of his true self. The friction between a person's true core and sham exterior is the stuff of literature, and it's also the stuff of cricket, which might be why so many readers love this game. We watch a cricketer to see their inner life – what we presume to call their character – come to the surface. You needed five minutes watching Ricky Ponting bat to get a good grasp of the inner man. Or was that just a well-fitting mask? "I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide" – this is Smee quoting the writer Alice Munro, but it could just as well be Adam Gilchrist, who said virtually the same words about being a Test cricketer. Anton Chekhov, meet Matthew Hayden, who said the other night, defending the principle of on-field aggression, "It's not the real you, it's the mask you put on to help you play your best". Sometimes a complicated, tumultuous inner self is a burden, and the mask, the public persona out in the middle, feels like freedom. Ask Shane Warne, or Andy Warhol.
Smee writes that in the digital age, this inner-outer boundary is under unprecedented and unknown pressure. An inner life, as we used to know it, might not even exist anymore: "Our children, from a young age, are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online, and these versions, concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy, appear to take on greater and greater substance in the formation of their characters. They are lonely, it sometimes seems." Leave the children aside. What better description for a 25-year-old Test cricketer?
Langer is big on his players "being themselves", which seems a perfect antidote to the posturing of the past few years. But what if they do not really know who their "self" is? Does anyone, apart from the occasional Ricky Ponting, have such crystalline self-knowledge? Smee argues that whatever a "self" is (a vexed question), it is much harder to maintain in the digitally connected age than ever before. Be yourself, Langer is telling his players. But which self? Most elite sportspeople are digital natives; self-marketing is a professional requirement. So there is the self they project as "brand". There is the self that corporations construct from their online consumer choices. There is the self that Facebook knows. There is the self in the team meetings and change-room. There is the self in the nets. There is the self they show to their sports psychologist. There is the self that finds balm in locking the hotel room door and communing with a machine. And there is the self they are to parents, family and friends. So where is the self that they have to be alone with late at night – or is that also taken care of by sleep and "wellness" management, with Temazepam protecting the insomniac self from his terrifying insecurity? And of all these unstable selves, which will be revealed when they step out into the middle of the Adelaide Oval, for spectators to label that player's "character"?
As for their ability to concentrate, that, Smee writes, is the key commodity in social media. Facebook's first president, Sean Parker, said that the company's number one question is "How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?" One way is by showing you photos every day of your friends having awesome fun without you. Another is to fillet your attention, moment by moment. "Today, being human means being distracted," Smee writes. "It is our new default setting." That makes for good business, but it's utterly catastrophic for the user who then has to draw on what remains of his attention, under maximum pressure, in the public eye, for career survival and national prestige.
When old Test cricketers say that even with all the money on offer, they wouldn't trade places with today's, believe them. What we are seeing on our TV screens, these mini-theatres of the individual struggle for selfhood, is a lot more interesting and personally relevant to us than we might have thought. Too often we see young sportspeople lose this battle between inner and outer selves; every now and then we see someone, like surfer Stephanie Gilmore this week, achieve a personal victory. And we rejoice to see an inner life with an incandescent smile.
There is a lot more in Smee's essay, which I would recommend to all sports fans (though not, for obvious reasons, to sports practitioners, especially not those turning out in Adelaide on Thursday). It contains not a word about sport, and yet it explained more to me about what I see on sporting fields than anything else I have recently read.
This week, Langer's predecessor and one-time mentor Bob Simpson advised him to "keep things simple". But the cricketer's search for selfhood is far from simple. Langer would like all his players to quit social media, to avoid reading or hearing anything that is said about them. That is an admirable exhortation towards clarity – not "be yourself" so much as "find a self" – but it's also an impossible request, because it is asking those of one generation to leap into another. You can't be born in the 1990s and migrate into the selfhood of someone born in the 1930s, 1960s or 1970s. Langer, of course, gets that. What he also gets is that the challenge in front of him and his team is far greater than anyone out here could guess.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.