Sport is supposed to be macho. Lips can be split, limbs could be bruised, a tooth may be knocked out but you are supposed to wipe that blood away, splash some water on your face and get on with the game, which for many of its followers, leaps into the realm of multiple battles. As the saying goes, sport is war minus the shooting.
But it takes a toll. Remember, behind that glorious cover drive there could be a twitchy forearm, a fragile heart and a mind as vulnerable as a burnt twig on a forest floor. Sport at large and cricket specifically have taken an inordinately long time to address the elephant in the room — the dark abyss of depression.
Glenn Maxwell is an Aussie super-hero, the kind who chews nails, parts seas and has a laugh when the required run-rate shows inflationary tendencies. When he opted for a mental-break citing the fog in his mind and the anxiety attacks lurking just below his smiling visage, we knew that for all the toughness that most athletes exude, eventually it is a facade aimed at preventing us from peering into their souls.
It is a fallacy that we all believe in at the sub-conscious level — death, depression, defeats and debts may happen to others but not to us. It is a defence mechanism but one fraught with danger. When the breaking-point wraps around our necks like a noose, we choke, clam up but still have our showers, spray deodorants and stride out as if nothing can fling a dagger at us.
Cricketers and actors take this to the next level till they dangle at the precipice and then either a voluntary disclosure or a perceptive friend offers an alternate path. Maxwell has picked his road to recovery and he surely isn't the last celebrity, who will bare his or her vulnerabilities. The truth is that under the limelight, the mind’s intangible cracks cannot be plastered with a smile that never reaches the eyes.
We have had earlier tales of England cricketers opening up about their trauma, be it Graeme Thorpe, Jonathan Trott or Marcus Trescothick. For all the success or failure on those 22 yards, what greets a player at the end of a long day is an asceptic hotel and room-service. May be a boisterous night at the pub beckons but often it could be a case of being lonely in a crowd. Clocking jet-miles and living out of a suitcase might sound stylish but it takes a toll and more so in cricket, a game replete with pauses unlike other sport, which are shorter and always on the run.
In the willow game, there are those stretching seconds of passivity between deliveries. The mind can take a walk, a past mental wound may be exacerbated, a break-up with a life partner could just acquire fangs and then hey presto, a catch flies to you at first slip and it is shelled. There is more grief between deliveries and overs.
When M. S. Dhoni talks about switching on and switching off, he is talking enormous sense. Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman used to discuss their children, the wood-work being done at their then constructed homes and other random things between deliveries while standing in the slips. But when the bowler steamed in from the top of his run-up, they were switched on. However, not all are equipped with sagacity. Even Laxman had his anguish when he was not picked for the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. The Hyderbadi went to the United States, caught up with his friends and found a welcome balm. He coped, made his peace and returned to runs and cricketing longevity. Yet, for every player, who finds equipoise, there are many feeling that the walls are closing in.
Three decades ago, there was Sadanand Vishwanath, India’s chirpy wicket-keeper, whom the great Syed Kirmani rated as one of the finest talents to ever don the big gloves. Vishwanath had the sunshine smile and the swagger but tragedy was his lingering shadow. A rich father lost his business, his parents seperated, his mother’s battle with cancer went in vain and just when he needed an arm around him, his siblings settled abroad and his girlfriend drifted away.
Vishwanath, Vishy to his friends, cracked inside. To the external world, he suddenly became this distracted wicket-keeper tending to talk too much and with a propensity to gulp many beers. It was depression doing its petulant dance in the guise of bruised machismo. Vishy never knew that and a career went downhill before he found a second wind through umpiring and the brotherly eye cast upon him by men as different as Brijesh Patel and Anil Kumble.
Years later during a league game at Bengaluru, Mithun Beerala was getting into a heated exchange out in the middle. Vishy the umpire caught hold of the opener and hissed: “Mits don’t s@#$% up, I did that when I was young, now you don’t make the same mistake.” Perhaps Mithun saw the light but most don’t and the latest round of candid conversations about depression, will surely help many victims to open up and seek therapy.
Virat Kohli admitting that the 2014 England tour bequeathed him the horrors, is indeed an eye-opener. It reiterates that despite their aesthetic stubble and rippling muscles, grown men can have the most tenuous of mental reserves especially when the cookie crumbles. Back then, James Anderson was having Kohli for breakfast, lunch, dinner and the post-meal dessert and cigar but to watch the Delhi superstar in the nets, was instructive. Kohli shut out Anderson from his mind, lapsed into denial and kept practising the slog-sweep. It was as if he had presumed that he will bat long enough to counter Moeen Ali’s spin.
When it comes to agony that eats away your innards, overseas cricketers have been much more frank unlike their Indian counterparts but with Kohli putting his hand up, a welcome breach has been made. The BCCI has to step up as currently the focus is on pure performance and physical ability while the lens needs to be also trained on what transpires between the ears of a player. Is that recurrent voice a positive one or would it exaggerate a cricketer’s worst-possible fears and push him or her to the edge of no return? Recently former India cricketer V. B. Chandrasekhar committed suicide, leaving a trail of unanswered questions and a prominent ward like Dravid struggled with damp eyes. There is so much that goes on in an athlete’s head more so if you are an Indian cricketer. Pressure isn’t essentially about a Patrick Patterson running in with the red cherry in hand, pressure is also about the chef, who while giving a cup of coffee to Sachin Tendulkar, whispers about the need to score his 100th international hundred. The maestro coped and prospered, but for others the saucer may have cracked.
Maxwell and now Kohli have taken the lid off a simmering cauldron. And the BCCI and the National Cricket Academy have to devise sessions on mental conditioning. Eventually a cricketer is just a human being needing that warm embrace and a compassion that goes beyond the numbers he or she stacked up or didn’t on the field. Admission to depression is a start but more needs to be done to protect our players who often can be emotionally vulnerable.
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