Psychological price of cricket in a golden cage

Rohit Mahajan

Virat Kohli, fearsomely tattooed, bearded to the eye and possessing a gaze that could crack glass, a man who tends to spit angry words at his adversaries on the field, has revealed, once more, the brittleness behind the façade.

This year of ennui — a giant pause for re-evaluation of ideas about life, possessions, career and all things hyped up as wonderful — has been terrible for sportspersons. They thrive in the great outdoors, but now it is as if their wings have been shorn off.

A few other cricketers have spoken about the barren life in a bio-secure bubble: Cut off from one’s loved ones and fans, confined to hotel rooms for months on end — it does seem like being trapped in a golden cage.

England’s Jofra Archer, who has spent over 90 days in a bio-bubble this year, the most for any player so far, seemed to be talking like a prisoner in jail when he said that he might get a calendar to cross the remaining days off, before liberty and reunion with family and friends.

Kohli, who has spoken of “end of the world thoughts” after his failure as a batsman in England in 2014, spoke about the loneliness of a billionaire superstar, who thrives in adulation, in the times of Covid.

“I think these things have to be seriously thought about, and at the end of the day, you want the players to be in the best state mentally and physically…” Kohli said. “I think mentally, it can be taxing if this continues for a longer period at a very consistent rate. It has to be broken down, it has to be based on how the individuals are feeling, and I think that conversation should take place regularly.”

Kohli has been in the bio-bubble in the UAE since August 21, and he will fly to Australia from there after the IPL ends. There he and the Indian team will be confined into another bio-bubble, this time for around 70 days. Kohli has suggested shorter tours in the times of Covid, and his views must be heeded to by those who make the decisions — cricket boards, sponsors and broadcasters.

A torrent of negativity has been falling on the mind for months — the world over, an increase in instances of mental health problems has been recorded. It has been made worse by the lack of proportional response from a healthcare sector stretched by the Covid-19 pandemic. No one is immune — no, not even mega-rich cricketers.

Over the past one year, a few Australian cricketers have taken a break from the sport due to mental health issues — Glenn Maxwell, the most famous of them, spoke about feeling like “lifeless cardboard”. This was before Covid struck.

Two months ago, Cricket Australia appointed a mental health manager to ensure that the players get the care they need. Their men’s and women’s teams already had two full-time sports psychologists. But with some Australian players expected to be in controlled environments up to 150 days due to Covid, Cricket Australia appointed another specialist to ensure the players’ wellbeing.

David Frith, who has researched and documented for decades the phenomenon of cricketer suicides, came to the conclusion that failure in cricket, and the ennui experienced by players after retirement, may have been merely contributing factors behind suicides.

Sourav Ganguly, BCCI’s president, knows first-hand the ecstasy and trauma caused by cricket. When he was removed from the Indian team, he was deeply affected; in a testimony to his mental strength, he worked on his game like a man possessed and made a successful comeback into the Indian team.

Judging from what Kohli has been saying, Indian players could do with round-the-clock access to mental health professionals. Hard façades are often brittle.

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