By the time the India-Australia Test series gets over in the third week of January, at least 13 Indian players would have spent close to six months inside a Covid bio-bubble, confined mainly to their hotel rooms with stringent curbs on movement and contact.
This is “uncharted territory”, warn mind gurus working with elite cricketers, and authorities aren’t doing enough to “understand the psychological impact”.
Since the run-up to the IPL, when teams started assembling in the UAE in August, Ajinkya Rahane, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, K L Rahul, Umesh Yadav and Mohammad Shami are among those who have remained in the bubble. The others include bowlers Mohammed Siraj and Navdeep Saini, wicket-keepers Wriddhiman Saha and Rishabh Pant, and batsmen Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill.
These are all Test players who were also part of the IPL. Those who play in the shorter formats have returned from Australia while skipper Virat Kohli will join the side after the first Test.
“Without naming the sport, I can say Australia has already faced such quarantine situations where athletes have issues of anxiety attacks…The quarantine can play havoc with players with performance-related issues or for those who have family members with health issues. This is uncharted territory — and we don’t have enough experience to confidently say we have it under control or what potential problems await us,” says Cricket Australia’s consultant sports psychiatrist Dr Ranjit Menon, who is also chief psychiatrist for Australian Football League (AFL) and works with Australian Open tennis.
Sports psychologist Paddy Upton, who was coach Gary Kirsten’s assistant when India won the 2011 World Cup, says “players spend time overthinking about upcoming games in the hotel rooms, leaving them mentally exhausted”. “The longer the players are in bubbles, the more a unique set of dynamics will unfold, and new needs will arise. I’m not hearing a whole lot of cricket authorities who are undertaking research to understand what the psychological impact will be on players and being active around preventative measures,” he says.
BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal says the board is in “regular touch” with the support staff and “taking feedback about the players’ mental state”. “It’s a challenging time as we are playing back-to-back cricket under a bio-bubble. We have told the selectors and support staff that if any player feels mental fatigue or needs a break, they should let us know. The players’ mental health is paramount to us,” says Dhumal.
Currently based in Sydney, the Indian contingent has been allowed to move around a bit but the danger of more stringent curbs lurks at the first sign of trouble. With the South Africa-England series getting cancelled last week after a few players tested positive, no one is taking chances. Last month, Pakistan’s tour to New Zealand barely survived after several visiting team players tested positive.
It’s not just the Indian players. Other in-demand international cricketers — England’s Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer along with West Indian Jason Holder — have been confined to the bubble for longer.
Australian sports, Menon says, have sought to manage the bubble in different ways. “With AFL, we have had a bubble going on for five months. It was within a hub in Queensland. We took over a few resorts, put the players in specific hubs and got their families into the performance hub (after quarantining separately for two weeks). You can have provision of intermingling with other players, have access to limited bubble extensions like going out for meals and have a prescribed set of contacts they can engage with. There are different ways to minimise damage,” Menon says.
The norm for cricket in particular, as seen in IPL and other bilateral series, is to limit interactions of the team to a common room or gym and not allow it to linger in individual rooms. But Upton is concerned about life within the bubble. “TV games, social media and some Internet pursuits are designed to be addictive. The longer players do this, the more the chemical stress levels within their body and the need for stimulation. And when that is not met, things like depression await,” he says.
A proper medical support system within the team is key, says Menon. “They have to look at mental fatigue levels, behavioural changes — players can turn distant, irritated. In AFL we had 18 clubs, and apps with wellness surveys conducted daily, consultant mental-health professionals on daily calls with players and the team’s medical staff. Continuous professional monitoring is needed and symptoms identified early; else, this can blow up in our faces,” Menon says.
Kohli, who was in a bubble for close to 80 days in the run-up and during the IPL, had issued an appeal days before the Twenty20 tournament ended on November 10. Keep cricket tours short, he had said.
Upton, who has coached Rajasthan Royals and been involved with international teams like India and South Africa, echoes the suggestion. “Shorter tours are one option, another option is rotating players, especially those who have had extended periods in bio-bubbles. For players who don’t have avenues to release mental and emotional stress, which is probably most players, what eventually happens is the stress manifests in physical disease. Injury, illness and unexplained flaring-up of old injuries are most commonly associated with the physical manifestation of mental and emotional stress that are suppressed,” he says.
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