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Stars like Ben Stokes keep mental health issues in the forefront

Ben Stokes. File   | Photo Credit: Reuters

It is possible that the most far-reaching result at the Tokyo Olympics might have been achieved by gymnast Simone Biles. After all the celebrations are done, and the national revelries completed, one fact will remain: a top athlete, the face of the Olympics, pulled out from the early competition citing mental issues.

One whispers this quietly during the Olympics: sport is not just about taking part, it is about winning. And the pressures are enormous. Living up to expectations can be draining.

In recent years, both public and professional reactions to athletes who recognise a problem and take a break from the sport have become increasingly sympathetic. As India prepare to take on England in a five-Test series, the opposition will be without their most iconic player.

Ben Stokes, the extraordinary all-rounder will miss the series as he takes time off “to prioritise his mental well-being.” Even a generation back, top players who had an issue, like Marcus Trescothick, had to face the criticism and confusion of those who didn’t understand.

Affecting in differnt ways

The pandemic has affected people in different ways. For a sportsman, life in the ‘bubble’, with movements restricted, distanced from family and friends has increased the pressure.

England played 14 Tests in the past year, beating the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Pakistan while losing to New Zealand and India. In the same period India played nine, winning dramatically in Australia and losing to New Zealand while beating England at home.

It will not be surprising if more players around the world take breaks to prioritise their mental well-being. Skipper Joe Root has told Stokes that he can take as much time as he needs. Those who are troubled know they will be treated with compassion and that is crucial. Trescothick has written about a teammate “taking my mickey big time”. That is unlikely to happen now.

Living up to expectations is an occupational hazard for Indian teams. On the last three tours of England, they were favourites but lost the series each time, 0-4, 1-3, 1-4. That is a sobering thought, even if that last series could have gone 3-2 either way.

Starting issues

A lot will depend on the start. Teams, especially those uncertain of their batting strength tend to carry the extra batter when they go into the first Test of a five-Test series. India’s problem is that they are uncertain of their batting, starting with the question of who will accompany Rohit Sharma as opener.

They will have to plump for experience rather than recent performance since none of Cheteswar Pujara, Kohli or Ajinkya Rahane has scored heavily of late, although Rahane did have a century in Melbourne. That will probably give Rahul another chance.

Often in recent years, one poor session or an hour’s irresponsible cricket has seen India lose the first Test of a series and with that the advantage, specially abroad. They did recover after losing the opener to England in the last series, but that was at home.

Kohli is not a captain who thinks in terms of evolving through a series, of starting slowly and building up to a climax. He is likely to throw everything into every match, a tactic that could backfire. He hates to play for a draw, but might be forced to if things go wrong very quickly.

Only five captains have led their country in more Tests than Kohli, but his percentage of draws is the lowest among the top six (16% of 61 Tests). Even Ricky Ponting had a marginally higher percentage.

India’s bowling is less worrying, and the choices are wider. Still, the batting beyond No. 7 has not clicked as well as they were expected to after Australia. England, playing at home, and with a larger pool of players available immediately, start off with the advantage.

Much at stake

After the showing post-36 all out in Australia, miracles are expected from India. If they lose overall by the kind of margins they have in recent years, this could see a generational change in Indian cricket. That would be an astonishing slide for a team good enough to simultaneously field two international teams recently. But stranger things have happened.

In sport, no team can complain they were unable to field their best team. You pick the best available under the circumstances and take on the best available of the opposition.

While Biles at the Olympics, and Stokes among others in cricket focus attention on an issue that is little understood, does the fact that they are among the top stars give them the confidence to withdraw from competition?

Will a younger player or one less certain of his place in the side think differently? It does not matter. The stars keep the issue in the forefront, and that’s what is important.


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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 9:14:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/between-wickets-stars-like-ben-stokes-keep-mental-health-issues-in-the-forefront/article35712858.ece

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