If there’s one point the coronavirus pandemic has driven home in the last two and a half years, it is that mental well-being can no longer play second fiddle to physical fitness from a sporting standpoint.
That should never have been the case, but it’s only in the last few years that sportspersons, cutting across disciplines and gender, have found the inner strength to talk publicly about their battles with inner demons. That several leading lights of the sporting world have laid bare their travails has gone a long way towards lifting the inexplicable stigma around mental health and emboldened the so-called ‘lesser lights’ too to reach out for help, support and empathy.
BCCI evolves with times
It’s been a particularly demanding last couple of years for the Indian cricket team, much in demand worldwide both for the brand of cricket they play and for their drawing power. Out of necessity has arisen a new formula, with different teams playing internationally in different formats at the same time, the decision-makers at the Board of Control for Cricket in India mindful of managing the physical workloads and mental freshness of the largest stakeholders in the sport.
The BCCI has evolved from an authoritarian, ‘we-know-best’ behemoth to a more understanding and sensitive employer determined to take care of those under its umbrella. Towards that end, it has encouraged players to take breaks from the game occasionally – this is in addition to its voluntary rotational policy – and several superstars have grabbed the opportunity to step away from the stifling confines of bio-bubbles that are only just going out of fashion.
So far so good. But how much is too much? What happens when players start to miss more games than they play, through a combination of being rested and wanting a break of their own volition? There is no one-solution-fits-all answer, but it is no secret that tongues are starting to wag about the extended breaks accorded to individuals for one reason or the other.
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It’s inevitable that, as with most things Indian cricket, Virat Kohli will be dragged into this discussion, too. After all, the former skipper is the most visible and commanding figure in Indian cricket even though he is no longer the man in charge, and even though the avalanche of runs that once cascaded off his willow with monotonous regularity have shrunk to a gentle trickle.
This year alone, Kohli has missed nine Twenty20 Internationals (not counting the ongoing five-match series against West Indies), a staggering number considering it’s the year of the T20 World Cup. Indeed, he has played only four T20Is and one would have expected him to polish his somewhat rusty skills with time on the park against West Indies, inarguably one of the strongest teams in the format.
It is unclear whether Kohli asked to be rested or whether he was given time off by the national selectors and the team management because, for all their lip service to transparency, the BCCI does tend to surround itself with opacity at its convenience. Neither the Indian board nor the player himself debunked widespread speculation that it was Kohli who sought to be not considered for selection for the tour of the Caribbean, encompassing three One-Day Internationals and five T20Is.
All-format skipper Rohit Sharma, senior paceman Jasprit Bumrah and ebullient wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant were rested for the ODIs in the West Indies.
There is no disputing that call – after all, preparations for the 50-over World Cup in India next year will not begin in earnest until this November. Bumrah is too precious a commodity to be exposed to somewhat ‘meaningless’ ODIs for now, especially given he is a fast bowler, while Pant has played near non-stop for the last two years and Rohit is, well, the captain.
The constant absence of players – KL Rahul, officially named Rohit’s deputy earlier this year, hasn’t represented the country since February through a combination of injury and illness though he captained Lucknow Super Giants in the IPL in the summer – from international duty hasn’t gone down well with several, among them Sunil Gavaskar, the legendary batsman who is among the few that can speak his mind without worrying about ‘retribution’.
Seeking rest, at a price
“I don’t agree with this concept of players resting,” Gavaskar told a television channel. “You don’t take rest during IPL, then why ask for it while playing for India?”
Gavaskar’s sentiments find resonance among several other high-profile former players who’d rather not talk about it publicly because of the stakes involved for them personally. They are particularly in agreement with the former opener’s assertion that seeking rest should come at a price, literally.
“I honestly feel that the BCCI needs to look into this concept of rest,” Gavaskar said during the same conversation. “All the Grade A cricketers have received very good contracts. They (also) receive payment for every match. Tell me if there is any company whose CEO, or MDs, get so much time off? I feel that if Indian cricket is to become more professional, a line needs to be drawn. If you want to be rested, you need to reduce their guarantees.”
The ‘guarantees’ Gavaskar is talking about revolves around the annual contracts. There are three players in the topmost strata, Grade A+ – Rohit, Kohli and Bumrah – which is worth Rs 7 crore a year. Players like Rahul and Pant are among five in Grade A with an annual contract of Rs 5 crore. As mentioned earlier, these numbers are over and above match fees and prize money, so perhaps it won’t be out of place if the BCCI starts thinking of a pro-rata methodology if the request for breaks exceeds a particular number or percentage of the total matches the national team is to play over a season.
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Those toeing the populist line might lam this as the lament of an uninformed arm-chair critic, but how many of us have had the luxury of asking for, and receiving, breaks from time to time from our employers, especially when we are struggling to meet our targets? At a basic level, playing cricket is the job of choice for these individuals, and while admittedly the pressures and demands physically and mentally are a lot more intense, they will be the first to admit that the compensation is commensurate, too.
(The writer is a senior sports writer based in Bengaluru).
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)