Peter Siddle eats a banana

Going bananas: Peter Siddle has been vegan since 2012

© Getty Images

Feature

Are more cricketers turning vegetarian and vegan?

Champions from several sports have moved to plant-based diets. Are cricketers making the switch too? And for what reasons?

Firdose Moonda  |  

If it's vegetables you want, have you tried chicken and fish?

That is an actual question that still gets asked in many meat-loving countries around the world. South Africa lies 60th on the most recent Our World in Data list of countries that eat the most meat. Australia is in second place, but there is at least one Australian who says that the quality of South Africa's meat makes it a must-have.

"I really got into meat on a trip to South Africa and I discovered biltong," Jason Gillespie, a loud and proud vegan since 2014, says. "Before that I was just a regular kind of eater. I grew up in a home where we would have meat and three vegetables for dinner, a lot like other Australians."

Biltong, for those who don't know, is spiced, dried or cured meat. The description does not make it sound especially appetising; you have to taste it to really understand. It's a snack especially popular in sports stadiums and pubs: the perfect accompaniment to the big game.

In July 2013, a decade and a half after he first visited South Africa, and a year into his coaching tenure with Yorkshire, Gillespie was visited in Leeds by his parents, who helped him move house. "We were only going around half a kilometre away, so we were doing loads with the trailer and decided to do it all in one day," Gillespie remembers. "Dad went around to one side to get something and just didn't come back. When I went to check on him, he had fallen over."

Neil Gillespie had had a heart attack and attempts to revive him on the scene were unsuccessful. His father's death caused Gillespie to reflect on his own lifestyle. "I started to think about it and knew that I didn't want my kids to see me like that, so I started to look into eating healthier and exercising." Greg Chappell, one of the first cricketers to turn vegan (he calls it "pure vegetarian") did so for similar reasons after his father, Martin, died of a cardiac arrest in 1984.

"I am a dog lover and I thought that there is really no difference between having a pet like a dog or having a chicken, and so I decided to stop eating meat" Ishant Sharma

Red meat in particular is associated with heart disease, high cholesterol, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends no more than three portions of between 350-500g of red meat per week, and very little, if any, processed meat. The United Kingdom's National Health Service suggests that those who consume more than 90g of cooked red or processed meat a day aim for no more than 70g.

A year after his father's death, Gillespie went cold turkey, so to speak.

"I saw a documentary called Earthlings, which is about speciesism, and it was just really clear," he says. "It made sense. We are all beings on this planet and we all deserve to live."

The 2005 film, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, used hidden cameras to expose the treatment of animals in shelters, pet stores, agricultural industries, in the entertainment and the scientific worlds, and made the argument that the man-made economy is totally dependent on animals. The movie was Gillespie's Road to Damascus experience. "Everyone has that moment when the light bulb goes off and they are looking through a different set of eyes. That's what happened to me."

It also happened to Peter Siddle, whose partner, Anna Weatherlake, introduced him to a world without animal products because she refused to cook them at home; to Adam Zampa, who was inspired by his father and his partner to reconsider his diet, and now has three pet goats; and Kane Richardson, who saw lambs while driving past a farm with his partner, which reminded them of their pet dog.

It happened, too, to Ishant Sharma, who gave up meat when he was confronted with a gruesome sight on his regular grocery run. "I went to our usual shop and stopped at the place where we used to buy chicken, and on that day they were still busy killing the chickens," he says. "I saw how the chicken was butchered and I looked at its face and I can't forget that. I am a dog lover and I thought that there is really no difference between having a pet like a dog or having a chicken, so I decided to stop eating meat."

And there are other, performance-oriented reasons that have motivated several leading athletes from around the world - Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Aguero among them - to move to primarily plant-based diets. The biggest name in cricket currently, Virat Kohli, went vegetarian about two years ago. While figures establishing trends are hard to come by, there is certainly a great deal more conversation about sportspersons and plant-based diets than before, as sites like greatveganathletes.com testify.

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Of course, not all animal-loving cricketers have given up eating meat. Mark Boucher, who threw himself into conservation projects post-retirement, still enjoys a good braai, and Kevin Pietersen, who set up the charity Save our Rhinos in Africa and India, says he eats meat, "and lots of it".

Kevin Pietersen is an avowed conservationist and has his own rhino-protection charity, but it hasn't put him off his meat

Kevin Pietersen is an avowed conservationist and has his own rhino-protection charity, but it hasn't put him off his meat © Getty Images

Like everything, Gillespie believes there is a spectrum and people find themselves at different points on it as they unlock their levels of consciousness. Richardson described it as a "gradual progression", which started with him turning away from lamb, then beef, then pork, fish and chicken. For others, vegetarianism is as far as they will go. "I don't think I could ever be vegan because I love milk in my tea too much," says Sharma.

The debates about the dairy industry aside (and Gillespie will tell you that he wants nothing to do with it, having researched the "horrors" of that trade), Sharma has still taken a fairly drastic step considering he ate completely the other way. Having grown up in a strict Brahmin household, where his parents do not even eat garlic, he spent his childhood as a vegetarian, but then started eating meat on the advice of early coaches, who thought he needed the protein to bulk up. He says he ate meat "every day, especially lamb and chicken", and enjoyed it, even though he didn't necessarily notice himself getting any bigger or stronger.

Recent science has debunked the myth that meat is necessary for muscle. Netflix's documentary The Game Changers argues instead that it is plants that aid athletic performance. In the documentary, an impressive range of scientists and physicians explain how animals are nothing more than the "middle men" who transport protein from plants to humans. "All that protein that you get when you eat a steak or a hamburger, where did it come from?" says Dr James Loomis, who worked for the St Louis Rams American football team and the St Louis Cardinals baseball team, in the film. "It came from the plants the cow ate."

If you doubt that plant-based athletes can build big muscles, look no further than Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris, who broke the American record by lifting a combined total of 377kg (168kg in the snatch, 209kg in the clean and jerk) after becoming vegan, or Patrik Baboumian, a German-Armenian strongman who carried 560kg on the yoke walk.

"I don't feel like less of a man because I don't eat meat. I feel like more of a man because I can make my own decisions" Jason Gillespie

Sharma doesn't need to be able to do any of that, but he does need to have the endurance to last five days, bowl long spells and recover quickly between matches. There too, The Game Changers has some answers. The documentary claims that compared to animal protein, plant-based protein allows for quicker and less restricted blood flow, which gets oxygen and nutrients to muscles faster. It also argues that plant-based protein decreases inflammation in the body, which leads to faster recovery times and fewer injuries or illnesses. If that sounds too good to be true, Sharma claims he is proof that it isn't.

Over the last 18 months, he sits second on the Test averages list of bowlers who have taken more than 50 wickets. Impressively, after years of repeat niggles to his knee and ankle, he has only been injured once in that time. And that was a freak accident: he tore his ankle ligament when he slipped while appealing during a Ranji Trophy match in January. "If I was eating a non-vegetarian diet, I could still twist my ankle," he says.

Critics of meat-free diets could argue that Sharma's diet and his form and his fitness do not prove causality, especially because of what happened next. After he turned his ankle, he was initially ruled out for six weeks, but played a month later, in Wellington, and took a five-for, perhaps indicating he had recovered faster than expected. Then the injury flared up again, and he was withdrawn from the next Test in Christchurch. If his vegetarian diet allowed him to get fit faster, why didn't it keep him healed?

Sharma doesn't know the answer and that's one of the reasons he has been hesitant to publicly advocate for vegetarianism, especially in a country where there is an increasing stigma attached to eating meat. "It is very difficult to say anything and I find it better to keep my opinions to myself," he says. "But these days I am a little more confident being a vegetarian because of Virat."

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

India's captain, who holds sway over a large swathe of public opinion, became vegetarian after discovering a health concern, again in the meat-eating haven of South Africa. "In 2018 when we went to South Africa I got a cervical spine issue while playing a Test match at Centurion," Kohli said in an Instagram Live chat with Pietersen a few weeks ago. "One of the discs in my cervical spine bulged out and it compressed a nerve which was running straight till the little finger of my right hand. So it gave me a tingling sensation, I could barely feel my little finger on the right hand. It was hurting like mad, I could hardly sleep at night. And then I got my tests done.

"My stomach was too acidic, my body was creating too much uric acid... What was happening was, even though I was taking calcium, magnesium, everything, one tablet was not sufficient for my body to function properly. So my stomach started pulling calcium from my bones, and my bones got weaker. That's why I got this issue. That's why I stopped eating meat completely in the middle of the England tour to cut down the uric acid and the acidity in my body."

Kohli found the results of his diet change transformative.

"I've never felt better in my life," he said. "I have never felt better waking up. I have never felt better when I have to recover after a game. If you make me play three games a week, which are intense, I am at 120% every game. I can recover within a day after a Test match and go on another Test match. It's so much better than being on meat. Being vegetarian now - I felt like, why didn't I do it before? You start feeling better, you start thinking better, your body is lighter, you are more positive, you have energy to do more, so, overall it's just been an amazing, amazing change."

Mady Villiers, the England offspinner, is another who claims performance-related benefits from quitting meat. She turned vegan six months ago. Like Gillespie, she made a snap decision after watching a series of YouTube seminars about the dairy industry. Like Sharma, she thought about her childhood pet, a boxer, and knew that if she wouldn't eat him, she shouldn't eat any other animals.

"I am a vegetarian, so I don't always eat as well as I should. I don't eat a wide variety of food, so I think I don't think I get all the nutrients that I might need" Marizanne Kapp

"I got some bog-standard questions about how I was going to get protein or iron and also about things like my menstrual cycle, but going vegan hasn't had any affect," Villiers says. "If anything, it's made me better. I recover so much quicker and my body isn't half as sore after a game as it used to be. And I've also seen that my endurance running has improved."

South African quick Marizanne Kapp's is a different case. She has been vegetarian since she was seven years old, because "I didn't like the way meat smelled or looked and it was quite disgusting to me." She has, though, struggled with health issues, which hit the headlines recently. Kapp sat out of South Africa's semi-final against Australia at the T20 World Cup after picking up a mystery viral infection, which doctors have failed to identify, and has regular bouts of fatigue after tough training sessions or matches. While she can't conclusively say if her diet is the cause, she is willing to entertain the possibility that it, and her fussy eating habits, could be.

"I am a vegetarian, so I don't always eat as well as I should," she says. "I don't eat a wide variety of food because I like to eat the same things, so I don't think I get all the nutrients I might need. And I get tired quite a lot. I used to struggle with an iron deficiency but that's not the case anymore. I don't know if it's the reason I get sick."

Although it is hard to ascertain the difference in diets in men's and women's cricket, there is a gender dynamic attached to plant-based diets, which are often seen as a female choice. And perhaps that's not just a perception: a 2014 sample study in the US found that 74% of vegans are female.

Animal instinct: Makhaya Ntini's reasons to go vegetarian had more to do with practicality and convenience, but he feels fitter for the change

Animal instinct: Makhaya Ntini's reasons to go vegetarian had more to do with practicality and convenience, but he feels fitter for the change © Getty Images

Growing up in South Africa in the 1990s, Kapp noticed the difference. "My mom ate meat too, but not as much as my dad, and I suppose there was a perception that women maybe didn't eat meat as much. But I think that's changing."

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Real men eat meat.

As far as stereotypes go, this is one of the worst and it's also one of the most ingrained in cultures of toxic masculinity. So you can imagine the surprise when Makhaya Ntini, a proud Xhosa, filled his plate with potato salad, green salad, bean salad and a solitary bread roll at the annual Newlands Test's post-play braai.

"What sort of diet are you on?" a keen observer of other people's plates asked him.

"I am a vegetarian," he replied.

There was sniggering in some corners and side-eyeing in others. No one really believed that Ntini had given up meat, because it is just not something that certain people in South Africa are seen to do. It speaks to notions of masculinity that date back to prehistoric man as the hunter, and which survive in the modern era, as witnessed in the McDonald's Manly Man burger advertisement in 2012.

Ntini doesn't buy into any of this. He stopped eating meat for a practical reason. His wife, Thandeka, had developed allergies to a range of animal products, including dairy, and became completely vegan. To not complicate family dinners, Ntini changed his diet too, though he still has butter and milk.

At the same time Ntini has filled his post-playing days with endurance activities. He runs 20 kilometres every second or third day "just for fun", and is a regular on the 109-kilometre Cape Town Cycle Tour race. "I feel like I am fitter now than when I was playing," Ntini says - barely believable considering this was a man who used to run back to his mark dozens of times a day. "And I also don't miss the taste of chicken and don't mind what other people say about it."

"Being vegetarian now, I felt like, why didn't I do it before? You start feeling better, you start thinking better, your body is lighter, an amazing, amazing change" Virat Kohli

Over the years Ntini has learned that as a pioneer in his field and as the first black African to play Tests for South Africa, there would be a lot said about him and not all of it would be pleasant. He cloaked himself against comments about his background and his bowling, and these days, his choice at the buffet table, with boisterousness, which is what many of his ilk tend to do.

"I still get funny looks and sarcastic remarks, and the easiest way is to laugh it off and change the subject," Gillespie says. "Most of my mates still have a dig at what's on my plate when we get together, so I will say things like, 'Well, you've got a dead cow on your plate - how delicious do you think that's going to be?' But I don't feel like less of a man because I don't eat meat. I feel like more of a man because I can make my own decisions."

Gillespie recognises that his decision to cut out animal products was helped by geographical circumstance. The UK and Australia, the two countries between which Gillespie splits his time, are Nos. 1 and 2 on the 2019 Google Trends list of places where veganism is becoming popular. Brighton, Gillespie's English home, is the seventh most vegan-friendly city in the world.

Villiers, from her recent travels, has seen a difference in attitude and the availability of vegan food. "I struggled a little in Malaysia because they seemed to have a fairly meat-heavy diet but almost everywhere else has been brilliant," she says.

In previous generations Indian cricketers, who were vegetarian for religious reasons often had to rely on the generosity of fans for their fill in predominantly meat-eating countries like South Africa. During Australia's white-ball tour earlier this year, Zampa and Richardson decided they would need to go on a shopping spree in the hipster-minded city of Cape Town to stock up on vegan food for their trips inland, to Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom, where the chicken and fish comments abound.

Even if there is a growing global movement towards environmentally conscious eating, vegan diets are not widespread among cricketers. Gillespie has become less uptight about it. After all, three of his four kids regularly eat animal products, and his wife and oldest son sometimes do.

Leather rebel: Jason Gillespie is a staunch vegan, so much so that he has kept mending his leather catching mitt for six years to avoid buying another one

Leather rebel: Jason Gillespie is a staunch vegan, so much so that he has kept mending his leather catching mitt for six years to avoid buying another one © Getty Images

"I try not to sweat the small stuff," Gillespie says. "For example, when I was with the Adelaide Strikers, Rashid Khan took us to an Afghan restaurant in Sydney and when my meal came and I tasted it, I immediately thought there was meat in the food, even though I had checked beforehand that they were going to leave the meat out. When I asked again, they told me they had made a mistake. Usually I would have gone and rinsed out my mouth but it was an innocent mistake, they took it away and brought me something else and that was that."

And what about the idea of vegan cricket balls that he put forth a few years ago in the English press?

"Well, the thought is still there. I got an email the other day from a guy in Sri Lanka who is looking at ways of making non-leather cricket balls, and there are also people at Cardiff University doing that. But we live in a non-vegan world and I know that, so I just do the best I can. I have a leather baseball mitt and I have had it for more than six years. I just keep getting it repaired because I don't want to buy a new one."

Gillespie does not want to go back to the way he was because he believes there's nothing to go back to. "I haven't missed anything, I think, because I was so focused."

Not even biltong?

"You couldn't pay me enough money to have biltong now."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

 

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