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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Mental integration: How Aussie cricketers are seeking help for mental health issues

Kane Richardson’s isn't the first case of Australian cricketers choosing to sit out due to non-cricketing reasons. Of late, numerous players have asked for sabbaticals and Cricket Australia has been sensitive.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Updated: November 19, 2020 1:00:20 pm
Australian pacer Kane Richardson during a practice session. (PTI/File Photo)

On Tuesday, Australia pacer Kane Richardson withdrew from the upcoming limited-overs series against India to be home with his wife and new-born son. This, after he decided not to make the trip to the UAE, forgoing a Rs 4 crore IPL contract with the Royal Challengers Bangalore. “It was a difficult decision for Kane to make but one which has the complete support of the selectors and the entire playing squad,” national selector Trevor Hohns said. “We will always support our players and their families; even more so given the challenging environment we are in.”

Richardson’s isn’t the first case of Australian cricketers choosing to sit out due to non-cricketing reasons. Of late, numerous players have asked for sabbaticals and Cricket Australia has been sensitive.

The Australia A squad for the two Tour games in December alone features six players who have publicly addressed mental health issues, five of whom took time off to unclutter their minds. While star batsman Glenn Maxwell sparked a discussion when he pulled out midway through a T20 series against Sri Lanka at home, it was two other Victorians who really highlighted what has become a trend in Australian cricket.

Young Victorians

Almost a year ago to the day, Will Pucovski pulled out of the Test squad for the home series against Pakistan. Earlier in the same week, Nic Maddinson informed the management that he won’t be playing the Tour game.Discourse around mental health-related issues in cricket still largely remains a departure from the norm; a self-enforced timeout even more so. In the cases of Pucovski and Maddinson, it was two talents choosing well-being over a chance to either break in or consolidate their place in the national side.

Pucovski — a 22-year-old who has piled runs on the domestic circuit and has long been touted as a generational talent in the vein of Ricky Ponting or Steve Smith — has taken a break three times, twice from the cusp of Test selection. “(Pucovski) has some history in this area and he felt the best choice was to talk to the coach and the chairman of selectors and basically make himself unavailable for selection,” Cricket Victoria’s high-performance boss Shaun Graf told Fox Sports last year. “It’s purely and simply because of the fact he didn’t want to let the team down. He felt that having been through this before and knowing the symptoms, it was the right call.”

Will Pucovski was afflicted with mental health issues in 2019. (Twitter/@VicStateCricket)

Maddinson, meanwhile, was also in contention for a spot against Pakistan when he chose not to fly out of Melbourne. The left-handed batsman was one of the first Australians to take a voluntary break in 2016 when he was dropped after three Tests. “It’s similar to when you hear Olympians say they try so hard and put their whole life into one goal and when you don’t get it you don’t really know what to do with yourself,” the 28-year-old explained to Fox Sports last year.

Targeting a bowling spot against India is Sean Abbott, who delivered the ball that fatally injured Phil Hughes in 2014.
Abbott’s breakdown came much later, when he struggled to cope with the passing of a family friend and his first cricket coach. Abbott decided to take time off after an intervention from fellow New South Wales all-rounder Moises Henriques in 2018.

“There was an evening where I was going for a walk with the dog listening to some music. Moey (Henriques) said, ‘I’m at your place, let me know when you come around, we’re going to sit down and spend some time talking. It doesn’t have to be about what’s going on. I don’t want you to be sitting in your place alone’,” Abbott told Sydney Morning Herald last year. “There were certainly some dark days I couldn’t drag myself out of. (Henriques) … made sure I was looked after and made sure I was taking the right steps in getting better.”

Henriques not just knows Abbott, but also how debilitating the issue could be. A self-confessed long-time sufferer, Henriques has spoken about waking up before games and breaking out in tears for no reason.

He sought help late 2017 and a ‘clinical depression’ diagnosis prompted him to take a break for a couple of weeks. In February, the 33-year-old alluded to more troubles with an Instagram post. “I was going through my Instagram and noticed that it’s a highlight reel of smiles, laughs, good times and happy families,” Henriques posted. “Whilst things may appear all smiles and good times it definitely is not like that all the time. In the last five weeks I’ve felt like shedding as many tears as our baby Archie. Feeling overwhelmed, anxious and worried.”

Man management

Emboldened by the revelations of Henriques was spin bowling all-rounder Ashton Agar. After a magical 98 on debut in the 2013 Ashes at 19, Agar has been a bit-part player across three formats. The root of his mental troubles, however, “probably wasn’t cricket”.

“I can’t put the nail on exactly what it was,” Agar told Cricket Australia last year. “All I know is that I left it too long, and it built up over time. You can feel it happening. You know it’s happening over time and you just sort of ignore it. Then it builds up to something that’s a bit too much, and it gets you.”

Agar approached Western Australia management and found “excellent” support in then WA and current national coach Justin Langer. Earlier this year, with players facing long stretches of isolation, Langer talked about the importance of checking in. “Particularly for any of our staff or players who are home alone basically, we have to keep an eye on those guys and girls to make sure they’re OK,” Langer told reporters in March. “Caring about people is a really important part of leadership.”

Earlier this year, with players facing long stretches of isolation, Coach Justin Langer talked about the importance of checking in. (Reuters/FILE)

The remarks are in line with CA’s approach to mental health. In July, the body advertised for a position of ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Lead’. This in addition to the current apparatus of assistance through sports psychologists, detailed surveys and an education programme aimed at better identifying issues. There’s also a wellness app for players to post everyday details such as fatigue and sleep patterns. This is also the month when several players will be growing out a moustache as part of the ‘Movember’ campaign, to raise funds for men’s health including mental wellness and suicide prevention.

The efficient system could encounter bottlenecks without a sympathetic leader. That’s where Australia Test captain Tim Paine, who has himself had to wage personal battles, comes in. A sharp bouncer and broken index finger sent Paine into a downward spiral. Seven surgeries and as many years of exile from the national side almost made him quit the game in 2017.

“I was embarrassed at what I had become. No one knew I was struggling, not my mates, not my partner. There were times when she was at work and I’d sit on the couch crying. It was weird and it was painful,” Paine said on the Bounce Back podcast in July. The turning point was a call for help to the psychologist at Cricket Tasmania. And the 35-year-old is now equipped to understand the pain. “I’ve obviously got a lot of time for Will as a person, he’s a great young kid and it’s sad to see him going through this,” Paine said after Pucovski’s withdrawal last year. “We can only be there to support, and hopefully their mental wellbeing is in a good place eventually, and we can get those guys back out playing cricket.”

Mind matters

Australia ‘A’ players who have taken time off to improve mental health.

Will Pucovski

His third, and latest, voluntary break due to mental health issues came last November when he pulled out from the Test squad against Pakistan. Returned two weeks later to play Victoria’s Sheffield Shield game against New South Wales (NSW). Scored a career-best unbeaten 255 against South Australia as part of the record Shield stand of 486 in October.

Nic Maddinson

Like Pucovski, played the Sheffield Shield game against New South Wales last November. He pulled out of the tour game against Pakistan. Was named the joint Sheffield Shield player last season, topping the scoring chart with 780 at 86.66, with two centuries and five half-centuries, including a first-class best of 224.

Moises Henriques

After missing the first three games of BBL 17-18, Sydney captain Henriques took a two-week personal leave. He led NSW to the Sheffield Shield trophy this year, and was adjudged joint player of the season for his 512 runs at 51.20.

Sean Abbott

Took time off in the fall of 2018 to mourn the passing of his first cricket coach. In the first three Sheffield Shield games this season, he has taken 14 wickets and has scored 261 runs at 130.5.

Ashton Agar

After a finger dislocation ended his BBL 18-19 season, Agar used the time off to seek counsel in then Western Australia player development manager Angie Bain and coach Justin Langer. An ankle injury derailed most of 2019, but he has been in and out of the national side and opened this Shield season with a century.

Tim Paine

Seven surgeries on a finger broken in 2010, involving eight pins, a metal plate and a piece of hip bone took two seasons from him. He considered quitting in 2017 before reaching out to Cricket Tasmania psychologist. He was recalled to the national side later that year and has been the Test captain since 2018.

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