The unexpected sabbatical by England all-rounder Ben Stokes just ahead of a very important Test series against India which is starting next week has raised the debate of mental health in Indian cricket as well. Cricketnext caught up with a chat on this seemingly sensitive topic with former India player Maninder Singh who is one of the rare Indian players to speak openly on this subject.
Your first reaction on hearing the news about Ben Stokes and his struggle with the mental health issue in the post-covid world of cricketers?
See, this is going to happen and lots of cricketers are going to come open on the mental health issues. Staying in a bio bio-bubble for such longer durations is not easy. In the pre-covid world, you could relax by spending time with the family and friends and relaxation is very important after a day’s play or when the game has finished, we all know that. Nowadays, during the time in the bio-bubble environment, players are not getting that time to switch off and it is going to take a toll on their minds. You will hear a lot in the coming days that they need breaks. With Ben stokes, he lost his Dad and went to see him in New Zealand when he was ill. All these issues keep coming back when you are alone in your room. Recently, Glenn Maxwell also came out on this issue and he was supported by cricket Australia. Unlike Australia and England, we in India are a little shy about coming out. If you come out with a problem, there is a solution to it. If you keep it inside (for too long), it is going to get even murkier and worse. It becomes the parent body’s job to help a player when something like this happens.
There is one argument that modern athletes have so much money and comfort and yet they suffer and complain while some argue that in earlier times there were no such facilities and support systems and yet they used to cope better. Where do you find in these two contrastingly extreme thoughts?
I think it is very easy to say that the modern players have so much money and fame. But the kind of pressure (Indian) cricketers handle, nobody can understand that. Someone who has not played the game will never understand that. What kind of pressure our boys have to go through. We too (the former players turned experts or commentators) are heavily analysing everything besides expecting them to win every match. You try to understand (the problems in Indian cricket) that people are after Virat Kohli that he has not scored a ton for nearly two years. Maybe he is going through a bad patch but people are not willing to accept that how much time has been spent on bio-bubble and its possible effect on a player (no matter how successful he may have been). At the end of the day, cricketers are also human beings, and 99 percent of the time, we all need help. My only request is to go a little easy on them and just don’t think that they have so much money and success, mental health is not a problem for them.
Do you think that someone like Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s template is an ideal one for the modern cricketers to deal with such issues? Get completely cut off from cricket and media once you are out of the field?
See, everyone can’t be MS Dhoni since everyone has a basic nature that is different from others. Dhoni has always been like that since his early days. He always said that he didn’t read newspapers or followed media which is a wonderful way to handle distractions but it is not easy to emulate that for others. When anyone tries to change his or her basic nature, it puts a lot of pressure inside your mind as well. So, it is not easy to follow the MSD way of handling pressure.
It is also not easy to be Maninder Singh either! Someone, who could speak his heart out on this subject which many in India still consider taboo? What made you go public with your darker days?
When I was younger, I was a little hesitant to ask for help because people will say you have gone mad. But when I realized that I have anger issues because I am not that kind of person, I went for help. Going public with my experience was largely due to the idea that youngsters can learn from my mistakes that I didn’t take help at the right time. They shouldn’t go the same way. In India, pressure on cricketers is always more than in other countries and one can easily succumb to that. My only reason for going public was a bigger message to all the players that if you need help, say it and take it.
Are you surprised that still not much has changed despite your story because players are still in denial mode? BCCI President Sourav Ganguly had recently said that mental health issue doesn’t affect Indian cricketers unlike cricketers from the western countries.
Laughs… It’s not only the cricketers, but a lot of people are in denial mode. You can say that I started this topic in India but Virat Kohli also spoke about his struggle so there are mental health issues in India as well. People in India are quick to say arey who toh pagal ho gaya( he has gone mad) when somebody is down and he is talking about his struggle. But, I am sure a lot of cricketers are seeking and taking help from someone or other (on coping with mental health issues).
Have any players ever contacted you to learn from your life?
Nobody has ever spoken personally to get some kind of help from me on this. On the contrary, a lot of players criticized me saying that what was the need to go public? But, I am always there to help any cricketer if he or she thinks that I could be of any help in dealing or understanding them with such issues.
Finally, do you think it is high time for all the sports associations, coaches, and parents to accept a louder message that tells them that their old approach has to change?
There is no doubt about it. Especially in India, we put a lot of pressure on kids; instead, we need to boost their confidence. Basic education is required for parents and coaches not to put additional pressure on the kids. I remember the pressure was there from the beginning when I wanted to play for India. I was lucky that my parents didn’t put any further pressure on me but I have heard so many stories when parents always compare their kids with other players that they have to be like their competitors. These days parents always put pressure on kids saying that they need to play for India, play in the IPL, and so on. My simple advice is just to support your kids and nurture them.