A storm was whirling in Will Pucovski’s mind. The 20-year-old batting prodigy from Victoria, likened in style and quality to Ricky Ponting, didn’t know what was going in his mind. On the morning of Victoria’s match against Western Australia in Perth, he reached a breaking point, snapped and confided to Lachie Stevens, Victoria’s assistant coach that he couldn’t take the trauma any longer. Stevens soothed him saying: “You should take a break but after the match.”
He went on to amass 243, the highest score in Sheffield Shield by a 20-year-old since Ricky Ponting. But he fails to recollect anything that happened between 64 and 243. “It’s weird for me, because usually I can remember quite vividly what I’d done or the innings I’d played, or the days I’d been through and I honestly think I was so out of it that it almost became a natural instinct thing where you’d just watch the ball for the split second you needed to and then just be in another world almost,” he later revealed in podcast with Follow On.
At night, he buzzed his parents Jan and Jules and told them about his condition. The next day he informed the coaching staff that he needed an “indefinite” break from the game and explained the mental situation, leaving the cricket fraternity shocked.
“It was one of those things where what it looked like from the outside wasn’t quite matching up with what it was on the inside . I was more confused than at any other time in my life. I don’t really understand what’s going on and don’t know why it’s happening but this is what’s happening in my mind,” he recollected in the press conference after he was included in the Test squad for the Sri Lanka series.
It was only his sixth first-class match, but a peculiar shortage of quality batsmen combined with his head-turning talent had him being raved about as the next big batsman in Australian cricket, with rumours of him being even considered for the Test series against India. Even before he made his first-class debut, he was touted to scale heights by the luminaries of Australian cricket, with Greg Chappell stating that he’s the most talented batsmen he’d seen since Ricky Ponting.
His brother Ian reckoned that he should have been straightaway parachuted to Test cricket. His contemporary Jason Sangha admits he hasn’t seen a more complete batsman at his age. “Such a talented batsman, he always has that few extra seconds and three four shots for a single ball. He averaged around 100 that year, whereas I managed just around 30,” he said.
His former coach at the Caulfield Cricket Club in the suburb of Melbourne, former Australian quick Shaun Richardson, swears by his ability to judge lengths faster than any other batsman he had seen. “We had a big Trinidadian fast bowler who scared everyone in the nets. He was quick and bouncy by club standards, but Will then around 16, used to smash him all over the park so much so that he refused to bowl at him in the nets,” he recollects.
By 12, Kookaburra had already begun to sponsor his training kit, the youngest since Ponting. Rob Elliot the then manager of the sport-equipment manufacturer said, “I first sighted him when he was doing trials for the Mitchell Shield team. After watching him in the nets for a while I think the word I used was ‘Wow’, or something to that extent. He was an obvious standout at that point, with his confidence and wonderful hand-eye co-ordination and his shot selection. I watched him a bit more and decided that he was going to do something, somewhere and I thought he deserved a bit of gear.”
With his fizzy curls and beatific smile, the classic stroke-maker can still pass off as a 16-year-old, but he seemed to have maturity beyond his age. “He was a senior cricketer in a junior cricketer’s body. He was a freakish talent in everything he did, in academics, in rugby. He even contributed articles for the website Roar, on football, especially on his favourite football club Manchester United. He was a cheerful boy. But I don’t know what happened to him all of a sudden,” he says.
Bouts of concussion
No one quite knows what turned him from a jovial, fresh-faced teenager to a brooding adult.
Not even Pucovski himself. Some feel it’s the repeated bouts of concussions that led him to the condition. In fact, he and his close friend Sam Harper were called concussion brothers. Fathers of both them, Jan and Brian, were Caulfield legends. Jan, who migrated from Serbia when he was seven, was a deadly fast bowler while Brian was a dour accumulator of runs. So their sons also got along well, and were prone to concussions.
Pucovski’s first came when he was playing rugby league at school-slung to the ground in a tackle, rushed to casualty at the hospital and ordered out of sport for six months. When he returned, he was hit on the head in the nets. When he went home, he hit his head on a door. On his 19th birthday, he was struck on the skull by a ball, while fielding. Then in March last last year, a Sean Abbott bouncer felled him. Likewise, Sam had his head thrashed by Jake Lehmann when the latter was trying to late cut. But whatever be, Pucovski was ravaged. Without him knowing how he was being ravaged.
So one of the days during his layoff, he parents took him to psychologist Emma Murray, credited with helping AFL club Richmond break their 37-year-old title drought with the help of her meditation techniques. Emma herself had undergone severe bouts of depression after her son, a gifted athletic, met with an accident, leaving him quadriplegic. “All I remember was that I was driven by my parents to Emma, who I told me that I was alright and that I would be able to get back on the field. But at that moment I was not thinking of returning to the game. I just wanted to find out what was happening inside me.”
She advised meditation and a complete drift from everything cricket-related, asked him to go for treks uphill, vacation in different cities, listen to music and proposed light exercises. Meditation worked wonders to his health and he recovered in about six months. “I am meditating every morning, which I honestly never really believed in until (Murray) got me on to it and things like that have helped me. I speak to her regularly and am seeing another woman who helps me with a few different things. Having that team together makes me feel really supported and in a good space to deal with that kind of stuff,” he said.
Gradually, he regained his characteristic cheerfulness and one late November morning he walked into his club Melbourne Cricket Club. His coach Adam Dale was positively surprised. “He went to bat and I saw that he back to his normal self,” he said. A week later, he was up for his Sheffield reentry, and struck 67 in the second innings against Western Australia. It was enough for the selectors to be convinced.
A month later, will Pucovski finds himself in the Test side, a moment he feels as surreal. “You can’t even use words to describe it. It is one of those things,” he said.
And after a long time, he says he knows what’s happening inside him.