Modern Cricket is distinctly positioned in elite sports. There are three different formats, each with distinct requirements. The players compete extensively, so the balance between training, adaptation and recovery is an important consideration. An athlete's physical state and workload need to be monitored to ensure optimal performance and reduce the risk of injury. With busy international playing schedules, fatigue could be an issue for high-performance cricketers.
Load is a combination of both sport and non-sport stress factors. While the external load is objectively measurable, the internal load is the individual's psychological response to the external load. Injuries are a part of an athlete's life, but managing the workload - making sure they do not burn out, becomes extremely important.
The mental aspect is tricky. Ben Stokes taking an indefinite break indicates the extra toll that the pandemic has taken on already overworked cricketers. So why is this happening? Is it the bio-bubbles? Is it the ridiculous scheduling of games? Is it a lack of family time? Well, unfortunately, the answers are all of the above. We will try and decode the reasons why mental health issues are surfacing more in recent times.
Stokes’ example is a clear case of player burnout. Stokes hopped from one bubble to another, playing West Indies and Pakistan at home last year before flying to New Zealand to see his cancer-stricken father, who unfortunately died in December 2020. Factor in another short T20 series in South Africa after that, a two-month tour of India this February-March. Then participating in the high-intensity Indian Premier League for the Rajasthan Royals, injuring his finger there. While he was nursing his finger, he had to take charge of the England ODI team against Pakistan since the entire first team had to be placed in isolation. Stokes was living in the bubble for almost ten months out of a year since Cricket’s resumption. Till earlier this week, Stokes was also playing the Hundred for the Northern Superchargers apart from playing for Durham in the T20 Blast. All this while, nursing the finger injury as well.
Since the start of the pandemic, the England team have played the most number of international games. England top the charts for playing the most amount of International cricket. A total of 110 match days (15 Tests, 15 ODIs, 20 T20Is) – in addition to franchise cricket. And, with the money in the game and the demand for the Futures tour programme, these numbers won't come down anytime soon.
With the advent of different formats, the playing schedules have changed over the eras, and there's a stark increase in the number of match days every year for cricketers. The number of match days per year for Sir Viv Richards was 46.6. It increased to 64.25 for Sachin Tendulkar, and the number has shot up to 88.50 for Virat Kohli in the last decade. From the times of Viv Richards to Virat Kohli, the number of match days per year has almost doubled. Include the training sessions, and the load on the athlete is further increased.
Elite athletes have an inherent desire to succeed. Success, accolades are always coupled with fear of ruining every ounce of hard work a player has put in. Executing skills becomes difficult, and the ability to reason deserts an individual under extreme pressure. And, there are times when it's not the match situation that puts pressure on a player.
Let us consider Jos Buttler's example. England has a plethora of wicket-keeper batsmen, and if one fails, there is no shortage of an immediate replacement. Buttler is part of the English set-up in all formats, is the best batsman for his franchise in the Indian Premier League and is also leading the Manchester Originals in The Hundred. Every time he steps onto the field, a match-winning performance is expected out of him. England play five Tests against India, they have the Ashes later this year, and they are the favourites to win the World T20. Buttler has to come good every single time. Almost every time he steps on a field, it is an important occasion and there are expectations of people.
How each player handles the pressure depends on the individual, and different players have different ways of dealing with stress.
Cricket was the first international sport to resume globally after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Many cricketers since then have taken a break time and again citing bubble fatigue. More recently, Kieron Pollard, David Warner and Andre Russell withdrew from the first season of The Hundred solely because of the exhausting nature of the bio-bubble.
Some might suggest that with all the luxuries the players are spoilt, bio-bubbles are probably unchallenging. Earlier last year, we caught up with the Former Mental Condition coach for Team India, Paddy Upton and asked him just how much of an impact bio-bubble fatigue causes right now.
Virat Kohli added that being in bio-bubbles is quite robotic. Kohli said – “It’s repetitive, and it does get tricky at times because it is repetitive. These things will have to be considered. Like what length of the tournament or series one is going to play and what impact it will have on players mentally to stay in a similar environment for 80 days and not do anything different. Or have space to just go and see family or small things like that. These things have to be thought about seriously. At the end of the day, you want the players to be in the best state mentally, based on how they are feeling”.
SOCIAL MEDIA TOXICITY
By now, we all know that the current social media system can be hostile. What was once a seemingly harmless platform has evolved into a powerful machine that has set dangerous precedents. Chennai Super Kings players, especially MS Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav, were subjected to threats and abuse on social media after CSK's disappointing run in IPL 2020. Remember the Euros? England players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were racially abused after their penalty misses in a high-pressure final against Italy. Moments after New Zealand pacer Kyle Jamieson dismissed Virat Kohli on day three of the World Test Championship final, certain Indian fans flocked to his social media handle to direct despicable abuses towards him and his family.
Stuart Broad joined football clubs by boycotting social media, to “make a stand” against online abuse. "It's a powerful message. You don't want a small minority to ruin the opportunities you get through social media but do you need something drastic to stop it, or should there be more responsibility with app creators and more liability?", Broad said.
Social media platforms help athletes connect with their fans, but it also leaves them vulnerable to abuse and threats.
FREEDOM TO SPEAK OUT
In December 2020, Pakistan pacer Mohammad Amir admitted that players of the national team were scared of asking for a break even when they feel exhausted. David Gower addressed this issue on Cricket.com's exclusive talk show "India's English Summer". Gower said - "The Ben Stokes case (taking a break for mental health reasons) is a modern phenomenon. In the good old days, or I should say 'bad old days, people used to say, 'oh, pull yourself together and get back there and that would be it'.
In his first column for Telegraph, James Anderson had mentioned - The best thing is we are in a society now where people are comfortable talking about mental health and saying they need help. That is great, especially for men. When I first started, or just ten years ago, as a male athlete, it felt like you were showing a sign of weakness if you said you were struggling mentally. People would suffer in silence on their own. Now they can talk publicly and be helped. If the same openness and knowledge existed in the past, things might have been different for cricketers.