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Does India have a plan for the mental health of its players?

Cricketers are more open about anxiety and depression than ever before, but systemic support is missing

Varun Shetty  |  

For 15 minutes, in the frigid press-conference room of the Holkar Stadium in Indore last November, Virat Kohli fielded questions mostly about the pink-ball Test in Kolkata nine days later. That was until he got one about Glenn Maxwell's decision to take a break from cricket to tend to his mental health.

"I'm absolutely for it," Kohli said. "I've gone through a phase in my career where I felt like it was the end of the world. In England 2014, I didn't know what to do, what to say to anyone, and how to speak and how to communicate. And to be honest, I couldn't have said I'm not feeling great mentally and I need to get away from the game. Because you never know how that's taken."

Kohli was 25 in 2014, an international player for six years, and long past the stage of just being an exciting prospect; he was a generational talent being groomed for leadership, and whose brandification had already transitioned him into the elite tier of Indian cricket. With no one to talk to, ten innings without a fifty felt like the end of the world.

The press conference wasn't a setting in which Kohli could have elaborated further on his thoughts about that tour. But whether his malaise was existential, performance-related, or even a symptom of mental illness, it provides a sombre insight into the contrast between cricket's profile in India and the negligible support system for its players.

Playing cricket in India is different to elsewhere in the world, not least because of a population approaching 1.4 billion. The margins for error are small, and nowhere else are the rewards of making it so lucrative, all of which thrusts the player into an unhealthy relationship with a demanding public. And though the phenomenon of stoning players' houses may have disappeared, it might be only because coordinated bullying on social media is easier to sustain.

Not that it should take such a reality to build a support system, as other cricketing nations have shown. Dr Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist and director of Fortis' National Mental Health Program, said one in four people suffer from mental health issues.

"If you have a hundred players that play for, let's say, a year, it is not possible that at least one or two will not have depression," he told the Cricket Monthly. "It's just statistically not possible. So how do you identify and take care of it? Because you might misread the lows, misread the reaction, as a part of the career, not as a medical problem."

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Robin Uthappa spoke about his depression on a Royal Rajasthan Foundation webinar recently

It stands to reason that self-reporting is the most reliable way to start tackling any such problems.

"If you think that a player is important enough, for the team or for Indian cricket to go forward, I think they should be looked after," Kohli said as part of his response to the Maxwell question. "When you get to the international stage, every player needs that communication, that ability to just speak out."

But if Kohli couldn't, then who can?

A month after Kohli's press conference, Madhya Pradesh batsman Aryaman Birla, 22 at the time, announced an indefinite break from the game as he had been coping with "severe anxiety related to the sport for a while now".

It was a rare public statement of the kind by a cricketer in India, perhaps the first. More cricketers have spoken of their experiences since. Recently, in separate interviews, Robin Uthappa said he had been clinically depressed and suicidal between 2009 and 2011 - not long after becoming a T20 World Cup winner. It had been especially difficult to manage when there was no cricket.

"Cricket kept my mind off of these thoughts but it became really difficult on non-match days and during the off season," Uthappa said on a wellness webinar hosted by the Royals. "On days I would just be sitting there and would think to myself on the count of three, I'm going to run and jump off of the balcony. But something kind of just held me back."

Uthappa's situation gives us a glimpse into how franchise cricket has added a new dimension to cricketers' lives. As a tournament that seems, paradoxically, both accessible and difficult to break into - 971 players registered for the last auction - the IPL has a certain amount of influence over players' destinies.

Psychiatrist Samir Parikh:

Psychiatrist Samir Parikh: "If I was working with a young sportsperson who is doing well, I would put all my might into grounding them into focusing on performance, shutting the noise of adulation, not looking at your bank balance, and focusing on the next ball" Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Chennai Super Kings owner N Srinivasan was quoted as saying that Suresh Raina, second only to MS Dhoni in the CSK pantheon, would "certainly realise what he is missing and certainly all the money he is going to lose" by opting out of the IPL. There's an immediate parallel in football, where Lionel Messi, synonymous with Barcelona FC, had to consider suing the club he has been at since he was 13 when he wanted to leave, and was all but coerced into staying on for another year. The commodification of players is a modern challenge - and may affect those who are biochemically predisposed to mental conditions.

For Uthappa, a last-minute trade to his home-town franchise, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, was unsettling enough to exacerbate an underlying illness.

"In 2008 I played for Mumbai Indians and I was just transferred to the RCB," Uthappa told the Quint. "I was very conflicted because the trade happened very close to the tournament. I think three-four weeks before. Suddenly, you're preparing the whole year to play for one team and you're thrown into a trade situation when you have to go to another team. Even though I was coming home [Bengaluru], I was very conflicted. And I think that was the hay that broke the camel's back, so to speak, for me. I realised something was not right. I was constantly depressed, I was not okay."

Uthappa reached out to a counsellor and was diagnosed. He then had to stick to a counselling routine, and was on medication as he navigated his illness, with his family as support system.

In a 2013 thesis on suicides in cricket at the University of Chester, Shaun McNee scraped international cricketers' autobiographies for quotes on the emotional toll of the cricketing life. In it are excerpts from players like Herschelle Gibbs, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff on the strains of touring, of developing "four-wall fever" in hotel rooms, of returning home and not being recognised by their children. Professional cricket gets lonely.

Sheldon Jackson, Saurashtra's senior pro, was homesick at the start of the last Ranji Trophy season, as his team's first two fixtures were away. It had been a difficult year for the 33-year-old, one where he'd needed to be in "three-four places at the same time", apart from dealing with his frustration at not being called up to the India A squad. His mother had battled tuberculosis, and he was aching to be home with his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

Sheldon Jackson didn't seek professional help for his mental-health troubles but managed to play through the phase

Sheldon Jackson didn't seek professional help for his mental-health troubles but managed to play through the phase Prashant Bhoot / © Sportzpics

"I was not sleeping well," Jackson told TCM. "Whatever was going on on the field, I was not enjoying it a bit. It was always like, jaldi khatam ho jaye, mujhe ghar jaana hai [I hope this ends early, I want to be home]. I tried to speak to certain people but instead of trying to understand from where you're coming, people always try to be the stronger person. Ki nahin yaar, aisa nahi hai [It's not a big deal], be strong, we are this, we are that. But actually at the end of the day we are just humans. We may be cricketers but we are humans first."

Jackson played through his discomfort, coping by keeping himself occupied and in the gym, while those at home reassured him that things were under control. He had another stellar season, breaching the 800-run mark once again as Saurashtra won the Ranji Trophy. During this time he only spoke to one of his team-mates, Chirag Jani, whom he has known a long time, and didn't seek professional help because, as he put it, "I hadn't gone into mental trauma or something".

Former India batsman Aakash Chopra, now a broadcaster, says things were much the same when he was an active cricketer: there was "no way" you could tell a captain or coach if you were feeling down, because you would be benched. "By the time you reach the top level, you're already hardwired to not acknowledge or admit if you're having certain issues," Chopra told TCM.

He makes an important distinction between the challenge of having to hold on to a spot in the team, and having to battle mental-health issues. The former is part of the game, wherever it is played, and something players train to manage as they step up through the ranks. The average cricketer already knows that the odds of success are stacked against them. A bad day at a trial or a bad decision from an umpire can end careers, and there are no second chances. Chopra was hearing he was going to be dropped even as he prepared to make his debut for Delhi.

Chopra says he first began to feel lonely and disconnected from the game after he was dropped from the Indian team. As he looked to navigate that period, he was too conscious to be open about it; and that included self-judgement about whether being a recent Indian player had changed how he behaves. He contemplated leaving cricket, before trying counselling and an Art of Living course to ground himself.

"For those who start doing well, the sheer expectation also has a huge impact," says Parikh. "Anything which happens in the public domain brings a lot more expectation, which exaggerates everything about the failure. So that makes it even more difficult, especially when you are younger. And the same stress comes back when you're not young anymore. The moment you're established and become slightly more senior, you know there is someone knocking on the door."

Hotel rooms are mostly lonely places, and living out of a suitcase can take a mental toll

Hotel rooms are mostly lonely places, and living out of a suitcase can take a mental toll Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

"The nature of cricket is such that it tears at the nerves," cricket writer David Frith said to the Guardian in a 2001 article about suicides in English cricket. "Half-hearted cricketers are extremely rare. This game gets a grip on people such as only religious fanatics might recognise."

For an aspirational generation of Indian cricketers, growing up on broadcasts flavoured by machismo and one-upmanship, the pressure of expectation is bound to rise.

In the present circumstances there are fresh challenges. In the ongoing IPL, even as cricket-starved audiences tune in to watch on television, the players perform in empty stadiums and live in biosecure bubbles. "There are a number of other players who are very much in the same boat as Suresh Raina, and I just hope that the teams are aware of that and are catering for that," mental-conditioning coach Paddy Upton told ESPNcricinfo a fortnight before the tournament began. "There are coaches who are gonna be struggling, there are support staff who are gonna be struggling in that three-month bio-bubble."

The work before the team management, according to Upton, is "to understand who are the extroverts, the confidence players, the externally motivated players, those who are risk-averse, those who are fear-based, the pessimists. Those are the players we really need to nurture to bring them up to a place where they can be comfortable in their own lives, comfortable by themselves in their hotel rooms without that external validation and stimulation…"

IPL games and international matches are the most high-profile of India's cricket, but they are only a small proportion of it. In the 2019-20 season, India held 2036 domestic matches across men's and women's cricket and age groups. For that volume of cricket, and cricketers, the support system that currently exists barely qualifies as an afterthought.

In thinking about why the BCCI hasn't matched up with Australia and England on mental-well-being measures, one must consider the spectrum of opinions that Indian society holds on the topic. From a legal lens, attempting suicide was punishable under criminal law in India until 2017, when that provision of the penal code was restricted (but not removed altogether). A 2018 document floated in the Indian parliament said there are only 3827 psychiatrists in the country, against a requirement of 13,500.

The BCCI produced a handbook for players in 2017, which had a section on mental health

The BCCI produced a handbook for players in 2017, which had a section on mental health © BCCI

A future archive of prime-time TV news since June 2020 will be filled with popular anchors trying to talk down any mention of mental illness in the case of Sushant Singh Rajput - the actor who played Dhoni in a biopic - who died by suicide. Some segments have gone as far as analysing his smiles in old footage to "prove" that he could not have been depressed; adding to that narrative, some celebrities with big followings have dismissed mental illnesses as a conspiracy or a hoax.

In the early '90s, when former India wicketkeeper Sadanand Viswanath was dealing with the death of his parents within a year of each other, the end of his Indian career, and a subsequent battle with alcoholism and depression - all in a short period of time - he considered seeing a psychiatrist. His friend, a doctor, intervened.

"I did seriously consider that option," Viswanath told TCM. "Until one fine day a friend of mine who is a doctor said, 'Vishy, even if there's nothing wrong with you, once you finish those sessions of counselling with a psychiatrist, you'll be bonkers. Better not see any psychiatrist.'"

Viswanath said he considers it one of the best pieces of advice he was given at the time.

"Ultimately your mental strength and your bouncing-back ability and your resilience, your perseverance, that gumption, that gut feel - it all depends on your self-respect, your belief system and not wanting to cut a sorry figure in society. Because you have played for the Indian team. That's the maryaad [conduct] one must have. When I walk up, people should say, 'Wow, here's a former Indian cricketer.' If you see me in a sorry state of affairs, what's that going to reflect on Indian cricket? Indian cricket becomes the loser. I don't want that to happen."

The likelihood of, say, depressive symptoms being categorised as "negative thinking" are strong even today. In the age of motivational coaches, genuine medical issues may inadvertently get overlooked.

"The mental-health component, which is the more biological component, by and large is very neglected, and that's why some of the recent [player] breaks have happened," Parikh reckons. "Those breaks could well have been a pure mental-health issue and not merely a burnout. We don't know from a distance."

The IPL, with its big-money auctions, has had a significant impact on players' prospects, and that has brought pressure in its wake

The IPL, with its big-money auctions, has had a significant impact on players' prospects, and that has brought pressure in its wake Kalpak Pathak / © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

The Indian men's team has, from time to time, employed mental-conditioning coaches. The women's team, on the other hand, has been publicly - and unsuccessfully - asking for a sports psychologist since the end of the 2016 T20 World Cup. The absence of one has meant that the burden of dealing with issues as varied as anxiety, depression and eating disorders have fallen on the players themselves, alongside support staff hired for other roles.

As far as TCM could determine, the only formal initiative taken at board level has been the creation of a general player's handbook in 2017, based on the recommendation of the Mudgal committee, which was set up to look into various aspects of Indian cricket. The handbook - adapted for cricket by GoSports Foundation, who originally created it for athlete awareness around things like sponsorships and the media - contains a section on mental well-being in a 101 format; it informs players about the symptoms of mental illness and recommends steps on dealing with them, including advice to seek professional help. It is understood that copies of this handbook were published in English and Hindi, but several players - domestic and international - told TCM they had never heard of it.

In summary, the pattern that emerges is that players at various levels are either not being heard, or are wary of speaking about their troubles. In contrast, players and boards in England and Australia have been openly supportive of those who need breaks, even multiple breaks or permanent ones. In both countries, cricketers have reached out through the respective players' associations, which represent the welfare of past and current cricketers, and which have created enabling systems, such as anonymous helplines. In India, the players' association is exclusively for retired cricketers who have played a minimum of one international match or ten men's first-class matches or five women's first-class matches. And even then the association is too limited in its power for real help. It certainly didn't feature in the account of Praveen Kumar, who came close to shooting himself in 2019 as the silence of retirement closed in on him.

"I told myself, 'Kya hai yeh sab? Bas khatam karte hain,'" [What's all this? Let me just end it] Kumar told the Indian Express. He only stopped himself when his eyes fell upon a picture of his children, and was soon in therapy. The Express story tells of Kumar's agony after being dropped from the Indian team and missing out on the IPL - a life cooped up in his room, watching his own highlights reel.

A tendency to downplay and dismiss the prevalence of mental illness in India has been a byproduct of the media feeding frenzy in the wake of the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput

A tendency to downplay and dismiss the prevalence of mental illness in India has been a byproduct of the media feeding frenzy in the wake of the suicide of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput Indranil Mukherjee / © AFP/Getty Images

It's not unheard of for former players to crave the highs of their fleeting time at the top. The dynamics of trying to become a top athlete involve such an obsessive relationship with the sport in the formative years that your identity is tied to it. With the advent of social media and multi-crore IPL contracts for teenagers, the risks are even higher, fears Parikh.

"If I was working with a young sportsperson who is suddenly doing well, I would put all my might into grounding this person into focusing on performance, shutting the noise of friends, shutting the noise of adulation, virtually not looking at your bank balance, and focusing on the next ball," he said. "If I'm not able to succeed in doing that, your failure rate would be higher. Look at those people who've had a great IPL, and who did not follow it up.

"Imagine a scenario where you know that endorsements will make a difference, where you know that social-media followership and your individual identity will also make a difference. How do you ensure that this component of your life is like an occupational need but not the core? You may get endorsements today, and one bad season and they're all done with."

There is work in progress on this front at the National Cricket Academy, where Rahul Dravid and his team have tried to roll out mental-health seminars for even those young players who aren't contracted or part of NCA camps, alongside those who represent India in age-group and developmental cricket.

Between that and Kohli's call for more openness, there is a start.

But for now, as the world's richest board ignores even the simplest of requests - a psychologist for its women's team, which has played two World Cup finals in three years - the creation of a comprehensive support system seems a distant dream.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo