BY SNEHAL PRADHAN
(Former India Cricketer)
Shortly after England women’s wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor announced her retirement from international cricket, citing continuing battles with anxiety, someone asked me why this only seems to happen in England. With three Australian cricketers recently having to take breaks of various degrees for mental health reasons, such notions should by now be disabused. And if you think this issue doesn’t exist in India, you’ve got another thing coming.
It’s important to distinguish between pressure that is intrinsic to sport, and more sinister conditions like anxiety and depression. Lanny Bassham, Olympic gold-winning rifle shooter who went on to make a career in teaching ‘mental management’, said “Pressure is like air: In the correct amount, it is the breath of life. But too much is a hurricane, too little and you suffocate.” Gayatri Vartak, a former top-100 badminton player and now cofounder and sports psychologist with Samiksha, explained: “Pressure is in a performance context. But months of unhealthy (not negative, which can be helpful) thoughts and feelings are mental health concerns.” A bad game will give you a sleepless night, but anxiety can mean you can’t get out of bed. Both deserve and demand educated handling, especially in elite environments. It could be the difference between cases remaining mild and subclinical, to becoming major and chronic illnesses.
Cricket, with large tracts of free time interspersed with brief bursts of action, is a fallow field for the worries of the mind to take root. Badminton and tennis will foul you if you take too long, and football games leave you with no time to breathe, but you could work on a PhD thesis in between balls while fielding in a Test match if you were so inclined. And you could also compose a worksheet of worry. It is no wonder that more batters are affected than any other skill-sets; the bowler has six chances, but the batter has one. One good ball, and you can be sitting in the shed for two days, watching your teammates bat, stewing in your own thoughts.
Indian men’s cricket is very susceptible to the prevalence of mental health issues, and their under-reportage. The vast number of young boys playing cricket creates an atmosphere of intense competition, and that breeds both excellence and it’s darker sides. If a talented young cricketer is struggling mentally, he is afraid to speak up to seek help, or take time away from the game, because there are two others snapping at his heels.
This is complicated by a patriarchal culture that instills toxic masculinity into our boys: if you speak up about it, you can be branded as weak. A hierarchical structure within most teams, with a senior-junior divide, complicates this.
Mental health is also lower on the priority list when more basic worries like making ends meet are front and centre. Until a young cricketer breaks into a state senior side or the IPL, the struggle in cricket is also a search for financial stability. And pursuing cricketing greatness often means eschewing other means of livelihood. The cost of failure is high; we celebrate the stories of the Yashasvi Jaiswals and the Shubman Gills, but there are more who lose than win.
In the Indian context, where sports psychologists are non-existent at the state level, the first point of contact for a cricketer struggling with mental health is often the physio. In a culture where speaking out is rare, physios must read the signs, which are often subtle. “Players can come up with musculo-skeletal issues, where a clinical diagnosis may not be established,” said Anuja Dalvi, cofounder of Live Active Physiotherapy and who has worked with elite athletes across both Olympic sports and cricket. “That prompts us to look into the aspects of mental health. In other countries, there is more awareness around mental health, and their boards are more accessible to these scenarios, so they would not come out as a musculo-skeletal condition.”
The current age of T20 cricket brings with it unique pressure situations. One performance can be the difference between mediocre finances and millions in the bank. No high-profile mental health concern has arisen through the IPL yet, and that is why Virat Kohli’s admission, that he “had gone through a phase, I thought it was the end of the world,” in 2014 after a bad run of form, is a welcome change in the conversation. Indian cricket works top down, and the system needs to take the hint from the captain. It’s OK for the next cricketer, young or old, male or female, to say ‘Everything is not OK’.