On challenging away tours, like the ongoing one in Australia where the Test series is tied 1-1, it is vital for the coach and captain of the away side to ensure that every cricketer feels wanted and is in the right frame of mind — especially when a player experiences failure or the team is under the cosh, according to former India batsman VVS Laxman.
Virat Kohli’s side is aiming to become the first Indian team to win a Test series in Australia. When the going gets tough – like after the second Test in Perth which India lost by 146 runs — it is the responsibility of the team management to instill confidence in each player, Laxman believes.
“The role of the leadership group and the team management is very crucial because when the chips are down and one is going through a low phase, it becomes mandatory that the leadership group ensures there is team bonding and keep motivating and ensuring that each and every player is in the right mental space. When the team is also going through a lean patch, it is the responsibility of the leadership group to ensure each and every player in the team is made to feel wanted and knows that they are good enough (to be playing at the highest level),” Laxman said when solicited on advice on how the touring side can bounce back when things don’t go their way.
Laxman said anxiety, frustration and self-doubt plague cricketers, irrespective of how experienced they are or mentally tough they portray themselves to be, and each successive failure can only push them to the brink of depression. He recalled examples from his own career, which has seen highs and lows.
The now retired 44-year-old admits there were periods, none darker than the summer of 2003 when he was left out of the World Cup squad, when his mind was a whirlpool of negative thoughts.
Teetering on the brink
“As a sportsperson, especially an Indian sportsperson, we don’t want to use the term depression, but along the way there will be instances where you are depressed but you don’t want to accept that because as a sportsperson, you feel you have the mental strength to overcome the challenges. So I think the role of the support system is very important whenever you are experiencing the lows. Because I have seen a lot of cricketers when they experience the lows and they don’t have the support system, their life can be miserable,” Laxman said during an interview to The Indian Express after the launch of his autobiography ‘281 and Beyond’.
Rewinding to the one-day series in New Zealand just before the 2003 showpiece event, Laxman says his spirit was crushed when the World Cup squad was announced mid-way during the tour and he was not included. He played the first three ODIs but Dinesh Mongia, who had made the squad, arrived in New Zealand to join the team, which meant Laxman was left to twiddle his thumbs, which only left him more frustrated and anguished.
“The lowest and toughest period ( for me) was the 2003 World Cup exclusion. I was in New Zealand and not part of the Indian World Cup team. I had requested the team management to send me back to India because Dinesh Mongia, who replaced me in the World Cup squad, was part of the New Zealand tour also after the team was announced. I was not going to play any matches, I was not part of any practice session, I was not going to get any batting in the practice, because the guys going to play the matches were going to bat. I played the first two ODIs (three) and after the second ODI, the team was announced and Dinesh joined from the fourth ODI. It was really tough for me knowing that I was not part of the World Cup, which I thought I deserved,” Laxman said.
Laxman’s pleas to allow him to return to India midway through the series fell on deaf years and he was left to lick his wounds.
On his return to India, Laxman played a Ranji Trophy match before he was picked to lead India A on a tour to the West Indies. After playing in the Caribbean, Laxman — with frustration, anger and hurt his constant companions — decided to quit the game. He took a break and went holidaying in the USA, spend time with friends in an effort to get away from everything. A month and a half later though, he started to miss cricket and decided to make the most of his opportunity as a Test batsman as he was a regular in the longer format.
“I experienced a lot of lows, I wouldn’t term it was depression because I never registered the term depression. But I have experienced a lot of frustration. In these phases you go through lot of negative emotions, but if passion can be your profession, nothing like it.”
Laxman said he never asked or questioned the team management or selectors about his exclusion from the 2003 World Cup or other instances but in hindsight, feels he should have been more proactive in trying to open communication channels.
“I never ever asked captain or coach (why I was dropped) but I think it is very important to know the reason why you are not there in the team. My parents had told me never to ask and ‘if the team requires you they will make you play, if the team does not want you they will not make you pay’. But in reality, it does not work like that. Now I feel I should have asked,” Laxman laughs.