BCCI Must Rotate Players Before Mental Scars From Bio-Bubbles Impair Them

New Delhi: The 11 days that Ashok Diwan, a goalkeeper and the youngest member of the Indian team that won the 1975 hockey World Cup, spent in quarantine at a Delhi hotel in April last year were some of the most miserable ones of his life. He had returned to Delhi from the US after visiting his son, and was undergoing the mandatory “solitary confinement” that he likened to a jail.

“Only I know how I spent those 11 days in solitary confinement in that hotel room. It was really tough. I had to do everything inside that room. Although it was an air-conditioned room, the windows were sealed and you couldn’t open them. I missed the fresh air. It was like a jail; that’s why I say I am now out of jail,” Diwan, who spent Rs 48,000 on quarantine, told me last year.

“No one was allowed to come inside the room, nor was I permitted to go out, so I had to do everything, like washing clothes, cleaning the bathroom, and even changing bed sheets etc. that they would keep outside the room and leave. The person who would bring food would keep the tray on a table outside the room and leave. Only I know what I went through in those 11 days,” he recalled.

Remember, Diwan was 65 years old when he was in quarantine and was mature enough. By nature he is very confident, and the experience of the pressure-laden India-Pakistan hockey matches had made him battle hardened. He still felt suffocated, lonely and miserable in quarantine.

If an experienced athlete like Diwan can feel the way he felt, youngsters these days would easily be under more stress than their predecessors, simply because the pressure on them to perform relentlessly is much, much more today than, say, in the 1970s when Diwan played. There is pressure to excel from the family and the society at large.

There is much more competition for each place in a team these days. So, missing out matches due to injuries or lack of form makes it difficult and tough for the athletes to stage a comeback, especially as their replacements perform well.

Also, since there is much money to earn through sport now – particularly in Indian cricket – that is another reason for sportspersons to feel the pressure of performing at all times. Amid all this, if there is a temptation to hide physical injuries and mental scars for the fear of losing places in the teams as well as the money, it is only natural.

And, now, the mandatory quarantine before every sporting event has added a third dimension – and the most taxing one — to the mental pressure that sportspersons normally go through. Even Novak Djokovic admitted to a “lot of pressure” after beating Rafael Nadal in the French Open semifinal on Friday.

All this demands, in the context of Indian cricket, rotation of players — not just to help them retain their competitive intensity on the field, but also to keep them mentally healthy so that they give their best whenever they play. But rotation of cricketers for the Indian team continues to be a strict no-no, a land not to be traversed.

At least on two occasions, if not three, I very distinctly remember Mahendra Singh Dhoni as India captain saying that it was not possible in India to rotate cricketers in the national team. He, of course, said that with his typical smile. Being captain, he probably knew the reality.

It is quite possible that he had floated the idea to the then selectors, though unsuccessfully. It is also possible that the administrators had instructed selectors not to step into that territory.

Importantly, when Dhoni said that in the press conferences that I attended, no one, of course, had any inkling that some years later a peculiar virus by the name of Covid-19 would engulf the globe and cricketers would have to live mandatorily in solitary confinement of quarantine at the start of every series and in bio-bubbles during it.

Dhoni was asked that question in the context of increasing workload on cricketers. Now, there is a completely new issue to tackle – mental disintegration due to quarantine and bio-bubbles.

Despite the Covid-enforced quarantine now being the order of the day – and may remain so for a long time to come – there is no hint from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that it would bring in a proper rotation policy for players to help them manage their mental health in a better way.

That a second Indian team has been picked to tour Sri Lanka for six limited overs matches next month – while the main team is in England — is NOT because the BCCI has suddenly become compassionate and has realised that the mental health of the players was of utmost importance. Far from it.

The reason for this tour is entirely different: To help the Sri Lanka cricket board gain financially, as the BCCI treasurer had stated.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA) have sort of taken the lead in realising and managing the mental health of their players. By a strange coincidence, the (current) cricketers’ associations in Australia and England are among the strongest in the world while there is no similar body in India.

The Indian Cricketers’ Association is only for retired cricketers, and not the current lot. So, the current players have no voice in the BCCI to enter into a dialogue about their issues, including the mental one.

Captain Virat Kohli has, however, sounded the bugle, and spoken about the toll playing continuously takes on players’ health. It is not known though if he has held any formal dialogue about current players’ issues with the BCCI. It is also possible that he had privately raised this issue with the BCCI administrators and was told to keep mum.

While Kohli called “scheduling” to be looked into, he could have had bio-bubble and quarantine in mind.

“Scheduling needs to be looked at in future, because playing in ‘bubbles’ for so long, two to three months, is going to be very, very difficult going forward. You can’t expect everyone to be at the same level of mental strength. Sometimes you do get cooked and you do feel like a bit of a change,” he had said this March.

Kohli had spoken of mental health issues earlier as well, though that was when Australia’s Glenn Maxwell admitted to not being in top mental condition.

“I think what Glenn has done is remarkable. He has set the right example for cricketers all over the world,” Kohli had said in November 2019.

India’s women’s T20 team captain Harmanpreet Kaur is also concerned about players’ mental health issues.

“We have requested the BCCI for someone like a sports psychologist, who can travel with us. We have spoken to the coach as well. Nowadays, the pressure is high. You need someone to discuss things when they are not fine,” she had said after the retirement of 30-year-old England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor in September 2019. Sarah battled high levels of anxiety.

The ECB rotated the players last year when the England team toured Sri Lanka and India, considering the Covid-19 enforced quarantine. It realised the urgent need of players to be with their families to unwind and relax at regular intervals while moving from one bio-bubble to another and living in quarantine.

There have been several foreign cricketers who have been affected by depression, anxiety and other mental health complaints. They include former England wicket-keeper David Bairstow, Australians Mitchell Johnson, Will Pucovski, Maxwell and Nic Maddinson, all from Victoria state, Sarah, and England’s Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick.

In India, we have hardly heard sportspersons complaining about mental health issues – leave alone quitting sports altogether due to these — because of all types of insecurities that surround them in the society.

I, however, have a hunch that sooner rather than later, Indian sports federations would be forced to mandatorily send a psychologist with the national teams. And I won’t be surprised if the BCCI is forced to send one following pressure from the players.

Money is certainly not an issue with the BCCI. And even now when the support staff of the Indian team has outnumbered the players, adding a psychologist would be easy.

It is, however, a question of sensitivity and compassion, and both are unfortunately lacking with the BCCI.

All this brings us to the main and the most important point – rotation of cricketers in the Indian national team. If the BCCI doesn’t pay heed to this aspect, sooner or later players would be unable to bear the pressure of bio-bubbles and quarantines and would make themselves unavailable for selection, and may even quit.

If a matured player like Ashok Diwan wasn’t able to handle the quarantine, what today’s young players are undergoing we can only imagine.