The year 2020 will be remembered more for the shifts in the sporting landscape as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic rather than examples of stellar sporting excellence. Restrictions on travel and physical activity, exhaustive precautions, and loss of earnings have had a major impact on player’s mental well-being.
Yet, the show must go on; before schools, before restaurants, before government offices, nations across the world were working to restart the sporting world, put sports back on our TV screens, and sportsmen back on the field.
At the peak of the pandemic prompted uncertainty, a logistical miracle allowed the sporting world to continue churning out entertainment – but it has come at a significant cost.
“The pressure of living in the bubble.”
A study conducted by Stanford University said that 22.5 percent of professional athletes felt depressed during the lockdown between mid-March and August. If you compare it with the results for the same period last year, it was 3.2 percent. The reason for this exponential increase was due to them not getting proper training facilities and also worrying about financial compensation.
While this phenomena is shared by all sports, cricket alone has produced countless cases of mental strain and fatigue.
Last week, Pakistan cricket team in New Zealand were granted permission to leave the isolation facility in Christchurch after completing their 14 day quarantine period. During this time several members of the contingent tested positive and a myriad of criticism was faced by the whole squad on not following the COVID-19 protocols. Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam and coach Misbah ul Haq were very vocal about the mental stress the players went through during this time, asking fans and critics alike to sympathise with their plight.
“Bio-secure bubbles” – ecosystems where the sportsmen and support staff are isolated from the rest of the world for the duration of the event – are the biggest cause of strain.
Recently, many players have found moving from bubble to bubble a very daunting task. Just last week Tom Curran and Tom Banton pulled out of the Big Bash League (BBL) because of “the pressure of living in the bubble.”
In September, Suresh Raina opted out of the Indian Premier League (IPL) as he felt stressed about the idea of staying in the bio-secure bubble for three months. For all those who have been following IPL since its inception, Raina is the most capped player in the history of IPL and previous to this season had missed only one game for his franchise Chennai Super Kings.
He made this decision just two weeks before the start of the tournament when 13 people tested positive for COVID-19 in CSK’s camp. The 34-year-old was not only criticised by the fans but also by the team owners on his decision. His crime; prioritising his health and well-being over the wishes of his entertainment-hungry fanbase.
Other than Suresh Raina, his former Indian teammate Harbhajan Singh also pulled out of the tournament. Other notable players who opted out include Sri Lankan bowler Lasith Malinga, Jason Roy, Chris Woakes and Harry Gurney from England, and Kane Richardson from Australia.
A month before IPL, Karan Tiwari, a fast bowler from Mumbai committed suicide. The 27-year-old was depressed due to unwanted breaks because of pandemic and felt like his career was getting derailed.
It tears at the nerves
The nature of cricket is that it tears at the nerves. When you compare it with other sports like football, tennis and golf; the individuals have a chance to redeem themselves during the game. In football, a defender can make a horrendous error in the opening minutes but still has a chance to make up for his mistake. A player can be set down in tennis and still can make a comeback to win it. In motorsports, a player can be behind after five laps but still can win the race.
But in cricket, the margins are razor-thin. The lack of opportunity at revival or recovery can cause players to spiral down in despair. When a cricketer finally has this chance at redemption, they are again under tremendous pressure to perform, knowing the gap between the current match and the next.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s left-arm pacer Muhammad Amir announced his retirement from international cricket alleging that he has been ‘mentally tortured’ by PCB’s management.
“I am quitting cricket this time because I have been mentally tortured. I can’t bear this torture. I had faced torture from 2010 to 2015, I remained outside cricket for whatever the reason. I served the punishment and did everything,”
He was dropped from Pakistan’s 35-member squad for the tour of New Zealand and has been subjected to continuous criticism from the fans and board officials on his decision to leave Test cricket in 2019.
“I can give my best for Pakistan in white ball cricket. But every month or two they say something about my bowling, or I am ditching this and that, there is no workload on me etc.”
Even before COVID-19 and bubble life, many cricketers have felt worn down mentally. Last year, Australia’s Glenn Maxwell and Nic Maddison took a sabbatical after the stress of performance got too much. Will Pucovski, New South Wales and Australian rising star missed his international debut last year, after having mental health issues.
And for the players who actually start to do well in the circuit, the sheer expectations of their teammates and fans also has a negative effect on their mental health. Jonathan Trott, the former England top-order batsmen who was instrumental in England’s rise to the top in Tests in 2009, saw his career end abruptly in 2013 due to mental health issues. At the time Trott was averaging 51 in the ODI’s and 44 in Tests.
The Englishman said that he started to dread the game he loved playing. It was fine when he was in the hotel but in the field it was overwhelming and he needed to get away from it. Other than him, Marcus Trescothick, one of the finest cricketer produced by England in this century couldn’t cope up with the pressure of international circuit and flew back home during 2006 Ashes series and didn’t play a single game for his country after that.
Speaking in a podcast Trott said: “The skill of playing cricket was something I was starting to dread, which I had loved my whole life until then. It was terrifying as it felt so foreign and you are so exposed to cameras everywhere. It was tricky to get some alone time and make sense of it all.”
The stoic gentleman soldiers on
In the sub-continent, talking about your mental health has always been a hard thing to do. There is a high chance of a player being benched or dropped from the squad after talking about these issues with coach or captain. Very recently, India’s women cricket team’s request for a special psychologist was denied by BCCI.
Last year, the Indian captain Virat Kohli also opened about his struggles after a disastrous tour of England in 2014. He said he wanted to take time away from the game but lack of understanding and awareness about the issue in the region prompted him to not disclose it and he battled his demons on his own.
“I’ve gone through a phase in my career where I felt like it was the end of the world. In England 2014, I didn’t know what to do, what to say to anyone, and how to speak and how to communicate. And to be honest, I couldn’t have said I’m not feeling great mentally and I need to get away from the game. Because you never know how that’s taken.”
This coming from Virat Kohli shows how hard it is to seek help in our part of the region. The current Indian captain was already a superstar in 2014 and was being prepared to captain the Indian side. If a player of his stature and skill was unsure about disclosing all this then who knows how many talented players couldn’t make it big because of similar issues.
Human beings, just like us
Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) under the new leadership of Wasim Khan has shown considerable interest in protecting the mental well-being of its players. Psychologists hold regular sessions with players on a regular basis while the services of a specialist are hired on the occasion of major tournaments and series to save cricketers from mental health issues.
In October, PCB’s Director Media Sami ul Hasan Burney said “There are no reported mental health cases among our cricketers so far and PCB is committed to the duty of care with reference to its players,” he responded. He said PCB is committed to raising awareness among the masses as well to help people overcome such challenges.
But the current support system available to these players for the volume of cricket they play is too small and boards in our part of the world need to work on it.
Eoin Morgan, current England captain and a World Cup winner has also raised concerns over the mental challenges face by the players in the bio-secure bubbles. He is of the opinion that players should be allowed to drop out of the tours if they feel like and should not be looked down upon.
“We’ve spoken about this as a team and we’ve accepted that guys will come in and out of the bubble as they feel it is affecting their mental health. I do think we will see people pull out of tours. That’s just going to be the reality of things.”
Last month, the leader of South Africa’s pace attack termed these biosecure bubbles as luxurious prisons. The idea of spending months confined within the walls is scary. He made these comments in an interview after returning from IPL where he was in a bubble for 11 weeks.
“It can be quite tough. You can’t interact. You’ve basically lost your freedom. It’s almost like luxury prisons we are in. But we have to remind ourselves that we are fortunate,” Rabada said. “People have lost their jobs, people are struggling at the moment, so we must be grateful for the opportunity we have been given to make some money and to do what we love.
This month, the series between South Africa and England also got postponed after five COVID-19 cases were flagged in the bio-secure environment. One case was from home side, two from England while two staff members from the hotel were tested positive raising question marks over the effectiveness of the bubble.
Until widespread vaccination gets life back to normal, cricketers will have to continue playing cricket in the dreaded bubble but at the same time, it is imperative that cricket stakeholders work together during these uncertain times in making collective agreements and ensuring that players are feeling well mentally. Because at the end of the day cricketers are human beings just like us.