Richard Hadlee talked about it, Virat Kohli briefly mentioned it. Now former medium-pacer Praveen Kumar breaks the biggest silence in Indian sport, opening up to The Indian Express on his fight against depression, and his search for a way back to the game.
On a chilly winter morning in Meerut, a couple of months ago, as the rest of his family slept, Praveen Kumar put on a muffler, took his revolver, got into his car and sped to the highway to Haridwar. It had been eight years since the pacer with a magical swing had last played for India. The anger of being so easily forgotten had given way to creeping emptiness and loneliness, the seconds adding up to insurmountable hours. As he sat in his car on the dark road, the revolver next to him, Kumar says, “I told myself, ‘Kya hai yeh sab? Bas khatam karte hain (What’s all this? Let me just end it)’.”
Then his eyes fell on the photo he kept in the car, of his smiling children. “I realised I can’t do this to my phool-jaise bachche (innocent children), put them through this hell. I turned back.”
Then, the 33-year-old did something unthinkable for sportstars like him, especially cricketers, the length of whose careers depends as much on their image off-field as on it. Kumar dragged himself to therapy. Diagnosed for depression, ‘PK’ — who mixed his guile with the dying art of swing bowling to stump the world’s best batsmen, who was valued by his team mates for his “mast-maula (freespirited)” nature — is now on medication.
— praveen kumar (@praveenkumar) January 19, 2020
While rare in India, the private struggle of sportspersons with mental ailments is now coming out in the open. After his international retirement in 1990, New Zealand legend Richard Hadlee talked of having contemplated suicide at the peak of his cricketing career. Recently, Australia’s Glenn Maxwell took a break from the game to recover. His coach Justin Langer spoke about how Maxwell would mask his mental illness by being this overly jovial person. Late last year, prompted by Maxwell’s decision, India captain and mega-star Virat Kohli shared his own vulnerabilities at the end of the 2014 England tour. While a drought of runs had made him feel “like the end of the world”, Kohli said he hadn’t been in a position to admit he “was not feeling great mentally” and so just got on with the game.
The signs were already there towards the end of his career, around 2014, when he was dropped from the Indian team and later couldn’t get an IPL contract, Kumar says.
Post retirement, things had escalated. There was no mental rest. The thoughts kept churning. Mostly negative. The churn would tire him out, he wanted it to stop but it wouldn’t. As he retreated into the recesses of his new Meerut home — a faraway world from the glory of cricket stadiums and the glamour of IPL — the despair kept growing. He stopped going out, stayed locked in his room, watching his bowling videos on an endless loop, seeing himself take out Australian cricketer Ricky Ponting or getting the ball to curve away wildly in England.
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For a team sport, cricket can be a lonely game. Professional cricketers routinely go on long international tours that last months. Even on match days, they have to endure long periods of wait — either sitting in the dressing room watching others bat or being on the field without being in the thick of action. In a game where sportsmen are encouraged to ruminate and introspect their every action, retirement comes with its problems. For one, the sudden switching off of the spotlight. Two, post-retirement, cricketers often fail to shake off their habit to be over-critical in their self-assessment. In Britain, statistics show that Test cricketers are 75 per cent more likely to commit suicide as compared to the rest of the UK’s male population. Former Wisden editor David Frith’s book Silence of the Heart deals specifically with cricketers and depression. While the international players’ body, Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), has been educating cricketers about the possible risks of depression, in India, it still remains a taboo topic.
At times, he would lie through the night staring at the fan. Kumar’s family — wife, son and daughter — suspected something was up but he blocked all queries. One reason, says the bowler, was that he didn’t understand what was happening himself. “India mein depression concept hee kahan hota hai (Who understands depression in India)? Nobody knows about it and in Meerut, certainly not.”
Once his sessions with the doctor started, Kumar told him he felt a cloud gathering since he had shifted home to an independent space, away from a large joint family set-up. “I had no one to talk to, felt almost constant chid-chidapan (irritation). As a fast bowler, I had to do a lot of thinking (to out-smart batsmen). I told the counsellor I was unable to switch off thoughts.”
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The sudden disappearance of fame was one part of it. A deeper vacuum was left by the loss of dressing-room camaraderie, the adrenaline-charged universe, the high of playing in front of huge crowds. Kumar told the doctor that the one thing that would make him feel alive again was returning to the cricket ground.
Like most cricketers, it was the only world PK knew. A lucky few return to their comfort zone through commentating or coaching or administration. It might not come close to what they did before as players but it’s the closest they can get. At least they are in the same universe.
Speaking about this once, one of the game’s greats, Viv Richards, had said, “When you are retired, you are retired for a very, very long time. It’s like being dead to some degree.”
Like other former cricketers, Richards keeps a connect to the game alive — be it as a commentator, coach or administrator. Nadeem Omar, the owner of the PSL (Pakistan Super League) team who got Richards to coach it, spoke to this newspaper once about his involvement still, at the age of 67 years. “Viv is so emotional, we had no clue. He smiles and cries at players’ success or failures.”
Admitting he longs for some cricket work, Kumar says, “I have nothing to do, I want to do something but I just can’t.”
The one-time ‘Swing King’, after all, has breathed cricket since he moved to an Uttar Pradesh sports hostel as a boy, living on endless cups of chai, and cricket talk. About four years after moving into the hostel, he was picked to play first-class cricket in 2005. Raising hell with his late in-benders delivered from close to the stumps, he was noticed quickly. In 2008, Manoj Prabhakar, who knew a thing or two about swing bowling, described Kumar as a “magician”.
The international call came in 2007 and, for a while, everything went like a dream — whether it was India’s first-ever tri-series final win against Australia in 2008, where he took the wickets of Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, or even 2011, the year Kumar stood out as the most-impressive pacer in the last Test series of his career in England. In between were 68 ODIs and six Tests, with 104 international wickets in all.
During IPL 2009, England batsman Kevin Pietersen walked up to Kumar, his Royal Challengers Bangalore team-mate, at a hotel in South Africa. After sharing a few words with Kumar, Pietersen turned to the journalist who was with Kumar and said, “Tell him please, all he has to do is get fitter, increase his speed by 5 to 10 kmph. He would be absolutely unplayable. Tell him not to fear losing his swing, he won’t. PK, you are a terrific bowler… go for it.”
While pleased, Kumar told the journalist he wasn’t ready for the advice. “If I lose my swing, what is left in my game?”
How good was he? At his best, and if you just take his skill to get that little round thing to curve, he was better than Bhuvneshwar Kumar. But that doesn’t tell the full story, about Bhuvneshwar constantly evolving, adding more weapons to his arsenal, increasing his pace, replacing Mohammad Shami in the World Cup semi-final and for Tests abroad.
Always known for his quick temper — yanking out stumps at the nets once to threaten a bunch of unruly fans — Kumar, on the other hand, slipped. In 2011, a bout with dengue kept him from the World Cup that India famously won at Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. The body recovered, Kumar’s career didn’t.
In 2014, Kumar, who had the previous season played for King’s XI Punjab, went unsold at the IPL auction. Says Kumar, “I had been bowling so well. In England, everybody praised me. I was dreaming about a Test career. Suddenly, gaya sab kuchch (it was all gone).”
Trying to put a philosophical spin on it, the World Cup-winning pace bowler and now retired Munaf Patel, known for his easy-going approach to the game, had said once, “Kya hai cricket, bhai? One injury and it’s all over. Then what do you do? Apne aap ko sambhaalna aana chahiye (You must know how to handle yourself).”
Last year, Kumar had the opportunity to get back to his world when he was appointed U-23 bowling coach of Uttar Pradesh but he had to end the stint due to circumstances out of his control. He admits he is “expecting too much”.
It was around then, after he had spent a night tossing and turning, that he headed out that winter morning at 5, ready to end it all. We are sitting at the restaurant Kumar runs on the Meerut-Haridwar Highway, among the city’s most popular. Opened seven years ago, it is mostly let-out for parties and weddings.
Literally a pale version of himself, Kumar has lost 15 kg in his depressive phase. As we talk, he often comes close to tears. But in light with PK’s spirit, the determination pops up every now and then.
The memory of things past also hangs over Kumar’s lavish, well-equipped two-storey home on the outskirts of the city. The Meerut boy misses the friendship of neighbours from where he lived earlier, in a house full of family members — parents and his brother’s family. Besides, people from around kept dropping in for a chat.
Sitting in a living room adorned with his bowling photos and trophies, Kumar mutters how the house feels empty, “khaali-khaali”. “How much can one speak to your own family? Since birth, I have been surrounded by people. Someone walking on the road would say hello, salaam dua ho gayi. Now, if I have to speak to someone, I have to go to my restaurant. There is no communication at all here,” he says.
In these parts of Uttar Pradesh, often described as the ‘wild, wild west’ for the streak of violence that underlines life, recent news reports about Kumar have been about him chasing a doctor with a rifle, or jostling with a man in his neighbourhood, accompanied by a hint of his alcohol troubles.
Kumar admits he drinks, but says that often, things are “blown out of proportion”, his image coloured by his on-field brawls. “Mostly my scraps have been about friends, like the case when fans abused Rohit Sharma.”
“Please tell me who doesn’t drink,” Kumar adds. “People have spread this perception, I don’t know why. No one will speak about the good things I have done. I sponsor young children, I have arranged marriages of 10 girls, I help cricketers financially. India mein bas sab ek hawa banate hain log. Meri hawa galat banayi gayi. Hawa toh hawa hai, ek baar chal gayi toh one can’t do anything (In India, a perception is created. A perception was created about me too. Once that happens, one can’t do anything).”
Kumar attributes his rough, blunt talking style to Meerut. “That’s how I am, that’s how I have always been. I come from an area where people talk straight. Seedha aadmi kisko pasand hai (Who likes a straight-shooting man)?”
As Kumar spills his heart out, he also lets out a secret. Like how he is partially blind, and was even so during his playing days. “I can’t see properly with my right eye. I was hit by a ball while playing junior cricket. I underwent treatment at a Delhi hospital. The doctor said they could do a transplant but could not guarantee return of vision and that things might become worse.” His father decided against the operation.
Kumar continues, “If you have noticed my batting dismissals, I often got bowled by slower balls. It’s because I couldn’t see the ball. I faced the same issue with bouncers. I never had a problem playing length balls.”
Apart from his family, only Rohit Sharma, who remains a friend, knew about his disability.
Kumar holds his performance with the ball, despite this, as a badge of honour. And again expresses his wish to be “kept busy”. “I got the feeling everybody thought PK was retired, not free. Does no one know the Uttar Pradesh Ranji team doesn’t have a bowling coach? I should be with the team and not be sitting here in Meerut.”
He wants to give back to the state, he adds. “UP cricket gave me everything, it’s my home.” Which is why he ignored friends who advised him to look elsewhere, like old teammates Mohammad Kaif and Piyush Chawla. “Apna maarega, phir bhi chaaon mein daalega. Doosra maarega toh pata nahin kahan faink de (If our own people hit us, they will at least throw us in the shade. Others can throw me anywhere). I told my friends that I have played all my life in UP, and I want to be the bowling coach of UP. I have the skill and passion to teach youngsters… I can do it,” he says.
He wants to coach for free, Kumar adds. “Money has never been priority, I was lucky to see fame. All I want is to get back to cricket. That’s the only thing I know and love. Some said get into politics, but I can’t handle politics at home, what will I do outside?” he jokes.
As part of his treatment, Kumar makes an effort to go out more, talk to people, attend community functions in and out of Meerut. And, he feels, he is turning the corner. “I used to fear myself a few months ago, apne aap sey darr tha. That’s what bad time does. If someone didn’t answer my call, I would feel terrible, neglected. It killed me inside. Thankfully, that dark phase is behind me. Koi nahin, PK phir waapis aayega (Don’t worry, PK will come back).”
Read this story in Tamil | நான் என் வாழ்க்கையை முடித்துக்கொள்கிறேன்: மனநோய் போராட்டத்தில் பிரவீன் குமார்