Mental Health and Cricket: Where does the Game Stand?

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Shilpa Bishnoi and Abhishek Khajuria

It’s February 2006 and the ECB announce that star opener Marcus Trescothick is returning home from the tour of India due to ‘personal reasons’. Little did the world know that what would come out in the coming months, would send shockwaves throughout the cricketing fraternity. Trescothick was diagnosed with stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The disorder led to premature end of his international career in 2008. The next major shock was probably Michael Yardy returning home mid-way during the 2011 Cricket World Cup. Then came Jonathan Trott, a classy batsman, whose career too was cut short by mental health issues.  

The case of mental health in cricket has been a peculiar one. Until the Trescothick case, it was not much talked about and people didn’t actually know what it was. For us being little kids at that time, we knew nothing about it apart from the dreaded phrase ‘mental health issues’. It was not as if the problem didn’t exist before but the issue was that people were reluctant to talk about it before.

We never talked about “Mental Health”

The reluctance to talk about these issues actually stems from the societal notions and a particular kind of cultural conditioning (the so-called masculinity) which requires men to be strong and therefore not coming across as weak in any form which only exacerbates their mental health, as for them to perform their manly functions, they cannot talk about it and cannot seek help. Recent statements by many cricketers of yesteryears have revealed that they too suffered from stress and anxiety issues but did not talk about them openly because it was considered a taboo and that they would become ‘less of a man’ if they were not able to solve such issues on their own. These societal notions in turn, haunt women too. If men are unwilling to talk about their psychological woes, women are not going to find any place to tell their problem. An example of it being that mental issues in women cricketers were so less discussed that the only case which comes to memory is of Sarah Taylor who made women’s cricket a global brand, had to retire at just 30 from cricket due to anxiety issues.

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What can be the reasons for such situations in cricket?

There can be many, from off-field issues to on-field struggles. But the often raised argument that bad form leads to such issues doesn’t always hold true. Examples being Trescothick being absolutely at the peak of his career when symptoms first appeared and Glenn Maxwell who announced his problem a day after scoring a 28-ball 60 in a T20I. Cricket Australia has maintained that what have been seen in its players is nothing peculiar but a societal thing and this might be even true as research suggests that it is not the case that the rate of mental health problems in sportspersons is any more than the general population. But the uniqueness of cricket as a sport and the demands it places on cricketers makes them more vulnerable to such situations and can make conditions even worse, say some sports psychologists. Cricket even in its shortest version is a 3-hour game (in T20s) while in ODIs, and Tests, at least 7 hours a day, a cricketer needs to be match-ready. Dr. Richard Keegan, sport and exercise psychologist at the University of Canberra, tells Guardian Australia, “If we look at cricket and the unique individual battles and the way you can be exposed if you show weakness, that can really be something that people play on. That has the potential to really play into vulnerability and self-awareness. In some sports you make a mistake and you’re straight into the next point or phase. That’s not always the case in cricket. It places a premium on not making mistakes and avoiding failure. That particular mindset, that avoidance of failure and intolerance of failure, often underpins a lot of commonalities in different mental illnesses.”

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The exponential increase in the amount of cricket being played with a rise in the number of international matches and proliferation of T20 leagues all over the world has also a part to play. Recent years have seen a change in broadcasting techniques too with every move of a player being scrutinized especially if he/she is out of form. Watching such things again and again by the player can actually contribute to mental struggles. Social media has added a whole new dimension to the vulnerability of cricketers to such problems as anyone can abuse them or their families. Increased social media scrutiny certainly can play a part in engendering conditions where every day of life seems like hell. Cricket being primarily a nation sport, those play at that level, are naturally very few and inability to do so also contributes to the same.

In 2020, the landscape of cricket with respect to such issues has markedly changed. Although much work still needs to be done, mental health has become a mainstream issue in cricket. There is lot more acceptance and awareness about it now. M.S. Dhoni has spoken about the need of switching on and off. Virat Kohli while openly talking about his struggles during the tour of England of 2014, has said that it is time to speak up about mental health. The policies of various cricket boards have shown a positive attitude towards the issue of mental health and dealing with the emotional rollercoaster a cricketer is going through.

What should we do?

The societal notions and the particular conditioning of the men need to be hammered out. Personal communication is the one of the best anti-dotes to such issues. Sometimes, the person somehow needs to find a way to tell someone about his/her struggles. It helps in a great deal in removing a mental block. In extreme cases, help of specialists should be sought. Medication should be used only as a last resort. On the cricketing side, the taxing nature of the cricket schedule should be relaxed so that the players should not be consistently touring and should find some quality family time too. There should always be a psychologist accompanying the team whose door can be knocked when someone is in need of help. Social media platforms should also run sensitization campaigns so that no one suffers abuse on them.

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The ‘Gentleman’s Game’, as cricket is often called, has blessed us with countless entertainment over the years. But we should be conscious of the struggles the cricketers endure while giving their absolutely best.

In the end, it is an appeal to all those who are suffering such problems to please talk about these issues and to others to please listen. Maybe that makes them feel better. The taboo related to talking about mental health needs to be done away with. So many people suffer from mental health issues from across the fields; from sportspersons to common students to film stars to politicians. These are prevalent across all age groups, genders and classes in the constricted world, in this day and age of virtual worlds with people wanting to be ‘normal’ and ‘fitting in’ somehow. 

(The authors are students of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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