The BCCI’s nonchalance towards its own players, who are being forced to stay away from home for months at an end, needs to change, writes Sarah Waris.
“Take your time @Simone_Biles. You have earned the right to owe it to yourself at this tender age. 48 hours or 48 days it might take. Just do it Champion. You owe no explanation to no one. @naomiosaka, you too. God bless you girls #Olympics” – Ravi Shastri, India head coach, via Twitter.
Biles, a five-time World Champion in gymnastics, and Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner, are two sports players in recent times who have been upfront with the mental demons surrounding their respective sports. Giving off the message that ‘it’s OK not to be OK’, athletes from around the world are becoming increasingly forthright in admitting that big paychecks, private jets, and fame are not factors that solve all ills. With the fear of failure often superseding thoughts of success, sports stars often lead lonely lives trapped in a balloon of self-doubt and anxiety.
The spread of the coronavirus has only worsened the situation. Away from homes for weeks and months at a go, individuals have been left to fend for themselves in stringent bio-bubbles that allow no influx of outside energy. A moment of negativity risks pushing the player into a chamber of darkness, crawling out of which might can be a struggle. Without distraction and laughter from friends or strangers, living in a bubble is enough to gnaw into one’s confidence. Which is why Shastri’s tweet accepting the hazards of playing in the pandemic comes as a welcome relief to Indian cricketers who have been let down by the comments of the president of their board in the recent past.
Earlier this year, Sourav Ganguly stated that players from his country are better equipped to deal with any mental struggles.
“I feel we Indians are a bit more tolerant than overseas (cricketers),” Sourav Ganguly told PTI. “I’ve played with a lot of Englishmen, Australians, West Indians, they just give up on mental health. Look at the Australian team, they were supposed to go to South Africa for a Test series after India played there. They refused to go there…”
The left-hander could not have been further away from the truth.
According to research by the World Health Organisation, India is the most depressed country in the world. India also has the highest suicide rate in South-East Asia, which makes Ganguly’s remarks all the more questionable.
Until the recent past, Indian cricketers shied away from using the dreaded “D” word. But that had more to do with the taboo around the subject in the country than the absence of depression altogether. It gave the indication that all was well within the set-up, as they flew from one country to another, often tasting morale-deflating defeats.
It was Virat Kohli’s admission of feeling like the “loneliest man” after a disastrous tour of England in 2014, where he averaged 13.50 in ten innings, that allowed other Indian cricketers to start opening up about their battles. There was Praveen Kumar’s haunting narration of how he was close to shooting himself, and Mohammad Shami’s candid revelation that his family was scared that he could have jumped off his terrace after being embroiled in a domestic saga. KL Rahul and Robin Uthappa were some of the other players who embraced the uncomfortable topic to display that the supposedly glitzy land of cricket comes with its own perils.
But talking about these issues can only do so much. There comes a time for action and meaningful change. Instead it seems as if the BCCI want to simply squeeze as much as they can out of their star cricketers.
Since cricket resumed after Covid-19 put a pause on all sporting action, the Indian team have endured an unrelenting schedule. In October 2020, they played the IPL before travelling Down Under for a gruelling multi-format tour. From their, they joined the bio-bubble back home for the Test series against England less than a week after landing from Australia, and then another IPL began. Only the postponement of the IPL in May provided a moment’s pause, albeit as a crisis engulfed the nation, before India headed off to England for World Test Championship final and a five-Test series. If not for the delay to the IPL, the players would have travelled to England just three days after the tournament ended.
A quick look at the upcoming schedule paints a scary picture: the five-match Test series against England will be followed by the second leg of the IPL just five days later. The T20 World Cup will be staged three days after the IPL final, which is on October 15, with the summit clash of the world event on November 15.
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The side will then travel to South Africa for three Tests and three T20Is, likely from the UAE itself, and it might not be until January 2022 that players who are a member of all three squads will be back in India. That is almost seven-and-a-half months away from home. This might seem unavoidable, but it’s not. Cancellations, rather than postponements, are options the BCCI should be considering.
Instead, with the revenue a traveling Indian team generates and the lack of a rotation policy, the top stars are likely to feature in almost all games, which not only makes them brittle and vulnerable to injuries but to mental health struggles too. The threat of their loved ones catching the disease while being locked up in a bio-bubble is an altogether different fear, something that Kohli has acknowledged time and again.
“Scheduling will have to be considered. Like what length of the tournament or series one is going to play and what impact it will have on players mentally to stay in a similar environment for 80 days and not do anything different,” he told RCB’s YouTube channel. “Or have space to just go and see family or small things like that. These things have to be thought about seriously. At the end of the day, you want the players to be in the best state mentally, based on how they’re feeling. Those conversations should take place regularly.”
Currently, no mental health consultant is accompanying the squad, with a BCCI official stating that the players will have to “cope” with things. “This is the new normal. Players have to cope with it for now, and hopefully, things will change.”
Shastri and Kohli have acknowledged the challenges in the pressing times, lending their full support to the overall well-being of the players. But is the BCCI listening, or are they the ones really living under the rock, while their players struggle in a bubble?
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