Cricket is being man enough about mental health now

But it needs to do much more to ensure players’ mental health challenges are given as much attention as their physical health issues

The three Australian cricketers who recently conceded their struggles with mental health issues have not been coy about admitting their situation, and the cricketing fraternity has come out strongly in support. Credit: AFP Photo

When asked about the pressures of playing top-flight cricket, Keith Miller, the legendary Australian all-rounder, said: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt [German World War II fighter aircraft] up your a**e, playing cricket is not.” Acknowledging mental health issues is tough for anyone, under any circumstances. The much-evoked Miller-ian perspective has not made it easier for cricketers.

Miller isn’t the villain here though. His words were only enlivening cricket’s lofty self-portrayal as a character-strengthening endeavour. Despite a history of sharp practices nearly as old as the game itself, cricket rode into the colonies with its warts concealed under the cloak of Victorian morality, presenting itself as a civilising influence suited to tame the energies and correct the moral compasses of the natives.

The virtues it promoted came to define the ideal cricketer, a man who, among other things, played fair, placed team above self, and faced rough weather without flinching.

Stoicism, courage and dependability have been celebrated qualities among cricketers ever since. They have made for some of the most stirring sights seen on the field – of individuals who soldiered on despite broken limbs and bandaged jaws, fought back when cornered by opponents and the elements. Away from the field, they may have had a lesser salutary effect, inhibiting conversations about mental anguishes, stifling cries for help.

The silence on inner torments would be troubling even if one were to discount the unique pressures cricketers are subject to. First as players of a sport where long periods of wait, phases of lonely combat against a full rival side of 11, and established metrics for judging individual contributions to the team cause can trigger a worrying amount of self-introspection and performance anxiety. Second as professionals who spend about 40 weeks or more a year on the road, away from the soothing company of family and friends. Third as public figures subject to intense, 24x7 scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, the reasons why cricketer-sufferers kept their agony bottled are sometimes akin to those that hold back other sufferers, sometimes particular to the game and their public profiles.

Andrew Flintoff and Shaun Tait did not quite know how to describe what was happening to them. Maninder Singh wanted to avoid intrusive press coverage. Graeme Fowler has spoken of an era when sufferers may have kept mum fearing being dismissed as “fruitloops”, unsuitable for elite-level cricket. The idea that they may be letting down the side may have played on the minds of others. Jonathan Trott was actually castigated for ditching his mates in troubled times when he left the 2013-14 Ashes tour.

However, the single biggest question eating into the cricketer-sufferer possibly has been this: Is s/he really a sufferer? Flintoff has spoken of privileged sports stars hiding their suffering, not wanting to be seen as unappreciative or attention-seeking. Moises Henriques couldn’t bring himself to interact with other sufferers who had ‘real’ problems – to do with money or relationships – compared to his own.

Marcus Trescothick, who has bravely recounted his agonies and struggles in detail, both touching and illuminating, remembers being asked: “What do you have to be depressed about? You play cricket for England. You travel the world. You get paid well.” Any meaningful response to that question would require baring oneself with a courage and sincerity very few have managed. (Trescothick is certainly among them.)

Things are changing though. The three Australian cricketers who recently conceded their struggles with mental health issues have not been coy about admitting their situation, and the cricketing fraternity has come out strongly in support.

Gone are the days when sufferers lacked the vocabulary to express themselves or allowed things to fester fearing loss of playing opportunities or the taunts of teammates, rivals, the press, and the world at large. And certainly, no one from the fraternity is accusing them of being soft or ignoring team interests. This is part of a larger change, an ongoing process of de-stigmatisation of mental health issues, and cricketers, while benefiting from it, are also lending it momentum. It is a welcome cycle.

“There needs to be increased awareness so that people can say “I’m struggling with mental illness” and the people they’re talking to are able to empathise and get them help because it is a terrible, terrible illness that no one should have to go through alone,” Marcus Trescothick had wished once in an interview. It would appear that it is being realised.

Acknowledgment and acceptance, of course, is only an encouraging first step. There can be hiccups going forward. Henriques left a mental care facility in embarrassment. Monty Panesar delayed medication because he had been “brought up to believe medication is not good”. But most importantly, there is the need to realise that there are no final, complete cures, that there is only a lifetime of condition-management ahead. Fowler and Trescothick continue to fight demons on a daily basis. Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddison and Will Puckovski, the Australian trio who opened up recently, are not struggling for the first time.

Cricket has worked hard to address physical health issues, harnessing talent from multiple domains such as medicine, surgery, rehabilitation, and psychology and introducing workload management protocols. It is time that it applied itself similarly to the unseen, festering wounds hobbling the women and men who adorn the sport.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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