“If an Indian cricketer tells the BCCI that he can’t handle the stress… can you even imagine their reaction? They’d probably just laugh it off.”
-- A former India cricketer
As England batsman Jonathan Trott walked away from the Ashes tour Down Under due to a stress-related illness, one couldn’t help but feel for him. Injuries you can see – a broken hand, split webbing, a knock on the head, blood and gore – they command instant sympathy. But a mental illness is seen as weakness – especially in sport.
At one level, the perception is that you just couldn’t cope with it; that you just weren’t good enough.
Similar levels of stress can affect people in very different ways. Some find a way to cope with it, some break down, some fight back.
But even as Trott’s decision was sending shockwaves around the world of cricket, in India it was greeted with barely a murmur. In our message boards, readers offered free advice to the England star: “Ask Sachin how he dealt with the stress of playing International cricket for 24 years.”
And that raised the question: How do Indian cricketers handle the stress?
Tennis star Sania Mirza recalled conversations with Indian cricketers during the recent India Today conclave: “There have been conversations with cricketers who have told me they have fallen sick because of the pressure put on them by the media and those close to them. That is very unfair.”
But the stories almost never come out. Another cricketer told us about the reception after India returned from the 2007 World Cup, where the team crashed out in the first round: “We got off the plane and came out and suddenly we were surrounded by policemen. We reached home there were two policemen outside the house and around 20 below the building. I was scared, not just for myself but for my family too.”
Mirza had even put the blame squarely on the media: “Media is responsible for it. They are very extreme. In victory and in a loss, they just don’t let you be. And sometimes you want to just be.”
The stress associated with being an India cricketer is immense: rabid fans, a media that scrutinizes and judges every little thing, comments are twisted, the pressure to succeed is immense and the chances are few. But we haven’t heard of many Indian cricketers breaking down due to stress.
Sachin Tendulkar, for one, surrounded himself with friends and family, old friends and new, people he could trust absolutely. As he said recently: “There were times when I could not believe in myself and that is where they were there for me. Even if I called them at 3am at night, they would turn up without a word. They helped me through the tough times.”
Is there a difference in the way Indians handle stress? Is there a lesson for others to learn? Harish Shetty, a leading psychologist in Mumbai, feels that the family system in India helps.
“Indians have a lot more buffers. The family system is very strong and Indians, in general, tend to have more friends that you can talk openly to,” said Shetty. “There also is the whole Eastern concept of yoga -- subconsiously or consiously, we just do it. It could be breathing or trying another technique to clear up the mind.”
“The drawing room is like the bedroom -- it's all out in the open. They are loud and usually will talk about what is troubling them. The concept of space -- private or otherwise -- doesn't exist. Strangely enough, that’s a good thing,” Shetty added.
There was a time when Rahul Dravid couldn’t cope with the pressure of batting with Sachin Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar got a good score, Dravid struggled. He just couldn’t figure out why. So Dravid turned to sports psychologist BP Bam, who came up with a simple solution.
Bam told Dravid: forget you are batting with Tendulkar. Just think of him as another batsman. It took a while but Dravid soon found his best form and didn’t look back.
Shetty also says that there have been several cricketers who just failed to deal with stardom: “Vinod Kambli lost his way badly, he couldn’t handle the stress, he used to drink before and after every match (I have evidence). He needed a mentor; he didn't find one and floundered.”
That was stress too. Gayatri Vartak, a former India badminton player who is now a sports psychologist, says that there is still a stigma attached to stress in India.
“In India, we just don't talk about it in the way that they do in Western countries. There still is a stigma attached to it and we have to realise that it is a serious and very real problem,” said Gayatri.
“Each person has his or her own way of dealing with stress. On a scale of 1-10, people could deal with the same problem is very different ways and it is important to understand that. And it can be crippling,” she added. “What we try and teach people is not to fight the situation but to deal with it effectively. For elite sportsmen, the stress is all about performing well -- each point matters and sometimes over time that can build up.”
Stress affects Indian players in much the same way as it does others. But the reason we never hear about it is because we believe it is a very personal problem and letting anyone know about it is like exposing yourself to the wolves.
So it’s not that Indian players don’t break down, or that they don’t feel stress. They suffer too but the silence that they use to fight it or the stigma associated with it needs to go. Only then will India really get talking.