Former fast bowler Steve Sylvester, now a chartered sports psychologist, has been revealed as one of the secrets behind the eye-catching early-season success of Middlesex.
Sylvester, who played a total of only six games for Middlesex and Nottinghamshire in a brief first-class career in the early 1990s, is credited by Neil Dexter, the club captain, for playing a big part in the team’s transformation from second division also-rans to table-toppers.
Middlesex, having finished second from bottom of the County Championship’s Division Two for both the last two summers, topped the second tier after winning their two opening games. And, in their third match, against London rivals Surrey, they amply demonstrated their steely new resolve by rallying to 368 for 5 at the end of a first day on which, put into bat, they had initially slumped to 28 for 3.
Dexter, who rallied his side with a brilliant 145 and was joined by fellow century-maker John Simpson in a fifth wicket stand of 254, said: “Aside from the cricket skills that we worked very hard on during the winter, the whole squad have been working very closely with Steve, who is the club’s sports psychologist.
“This has been done with the aim of toughening us up as a side and learning to develop a winning mentality in the dressing room. I am a firm advocate of the belief that winning matches breeds confidence, and that winning becomes a habit.”
Dexter is thrilled with the signings that Angus Fraser, the Middlesex director of cricket, has made during the winter months – bringing in Chris Rogers as overseas player, the pace pair of Corey Collymore and Anthony Ireland, all-rounder Steven Crook plus Ollie Rayner on loan and the club’s former player Jamie Dalrymple from threatened retirement – but he also believes that a lot of off-season work is already beginning to pay dividends.
Dexter added: “Our pre-season preparation actually began back in November and December last year with a six-week intense programme covering fitness, strength, team building, mental aptitude and specialist cricket skills.
“It wasn’t lost on me that during periods last season we underperformed in a number of key skills, and those were precisely the things that we were concentrating on during our time before Christmas in Finchley.
“The time we spent then was unbelievably hard work but we came out of it fitter, stronger and sharper than any side I’ve been involved with during my career.”
Sylvester added: “There is no typical day at Middlesex. Each day is unique due to the fact that what cricketers think and feel varies day by day according to the level of stress they are experiencing.
“I conduct meetings both with individuals and with the team. I also do lots of observation of the entire working system. The trick is to see issues before they become major problems and add my expertise on the psychological stability of the player or team.
“My aim is to assess any underlying hidden individual stress or tension, but as an ex-player I am able to muck in with practice, whether it be throw-downs or even having a bowl.
“I can also combine my cricket knowledge with psychology at the match preparation stage so that each player has the psychological readiness to express their skills with total freedom when the match begins.”