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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Neesham’s journey: From fighting depression to being New Zealand’s crisis manager

Luckily for him, Heath Mills, the head of player association in New Zealand cricket, and his team had been closely observing Neesham.

Written by Sriram Veera |
Updated: November 11, 2021 9:37:18 am
New Zealand's Jimmy Neesham hits a boundary during the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup semi-final match between England and New Zealand in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Sometime in 2017, New Zealand’s World T20 semi-final hero Jimmy Neesham was gripped by a growing sense of depression. He would wake up in the mornings of games, open the shades of his room, and would hope for rain. “Hoping it was raining is not the ideal way to be starting a day of cricket,” he said. He decided to quit the game.

Luckily for him, Heath Mills, the head of player association in New Zealand cricket, and his team had been closely observing Neesham. Mills has seen talented players like Jesse Ryder and others struggling with mental-health issues in the past and is particularly sensitive to spotting signs.

“I had observed him and suspected that he was struggling mentally. I got in touch with him and we started talking,” Mills tells The Indian Express, hours after Neesham’s thrilling heroics that helped New Zealand beat England in the T20 world cup semifinal.

The situation got worse after couple more weeks and Neesham got on a phone call with Mills to tell him that he was quitting the game. “He was struggling to cope, and it had all got a bit too much for him. The stress of the sport and combined with his personal well-being had grown too severe. He felt like giving up the game would be the best way out,” Mills says.

But Mills had another suggestion. “I told him why don’t you just step away from the game for a while. A short break. This isn’t the time to take any drastic decisions. Come back after a few weeks, and then let’s see how we feel in 4 to 5 weeks. We were able to do that. He told me how he was feeling about the game and we decided to take a break.

“He had enough of cricket and wasn’t in good space at all. I managed to convince him that quitting wasn’t the best decision now. Sometimes, the thing is well-meaning people close to players tell them to work harder, keep playing and things will work through. Often its the worst advice. Sometimes, it’s best to get away from that environment. I always encourage players to do that.”

Neesham agreed and went to see a psychologist Paula Dennan in Auckland. “I think I got to the point where I needed to have a full overhaul of the way I was approaching the game and she facilitated that,” he has said in the past.

When he came back, Mills told him to take one game at a time. “The transformation was quick. I remember there were couple of games where I could sense that he was enjoying cricket. That’s half the battle. Once he had break, he improved quickly.”

On his twitter feed, Neesham can come as a witty cool persona, wise-cracking his way through to people’s hearts.

“Some people find it difficult to reconcile how such a person can be hit by depression. But if there is one thing I know for sure now is that you never know about someone. What’s their own battles and turmoils may be. What you perceive you see from the TV or social media, it may be quite different. I never judge now. Just because somebody is doing well in life or have a persona that seems to suggest they are doing well, doesn’t mean anything. Especially in a high-profile environments as sport. We all have troubles in our lives and players such as Neesham are no different to anyone else.”

There have been numerous cases of depression in cricket and talks about bubble fatigue too are taking place. Mills feels that the situation is getting better in international cricket with reference to how it acknowledges depression in sport.

“I think we are getting better. There are number of teams and player associations in a few countries who are working well with their cricket teams and high=performance programmes like in New Zealand. There is a greater awareness about personal wellbeing as important as your cricket. However I would say that our environment is increasingly challenging for international players. The Indian team have been on the road whole time, now with bubbles and stuff. It’s very hard to maintain a normal healthy lifestyle. You are away 11 months from the family, your comfort places, and you are being critiqued every day almost. We are putting players in great stress. We have to be careful and something definitely needs to be done about the scheduling,” says Mills.

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