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When the 'wait' becomes too long

The length of the career span (or the lack of it) of a sportsman, imposes too much pressure on and off the field, writes Aakash Chopra.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2006 19:09 IST
Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra

Himanshu was a friend. Every weekend, he would make the pilgrimage from Haldwani (in UP) to my club in Delhi for practice. Once summer began and practice became a daily affair, he would find some one-room place in the Capital and settle there.

He was absolutely crazy about cricket and was a perfect example of that cola advert (sorry, I know colas are politically incorrect these days), that went on about eat cricket, sleep cricket and drink cricket. Except, for Himanshu, this last became too literal. That, though, was later.

Sadly for him, he was one of those unfortunates, who, even after putting in
boundless effort, could never become more than an average cricketer. This
game, like anything else, isn't just about the work you put in, you need aptitude and a helluva lot of luck. Fate definitely plays a major role!

After a few years of repeated disappointments, one day, Himanshu quietly went home and disappeared from our radar. In our own busy lives, no one had time to wonder where he had vanished, till a little later, when we heard that he had had some kind of breakdown. He ran away from home, unable to cope with the disappointment of failing to make a mark in the game he'd loved and lived since childhood.

He needed professional help but it wasn't there. The worrying part is I'm sure Himanshu isn't an aberration. If we look carefully, we'll come across similar cases across the spectra. And not just of players who didn't make the cut, but even of those playing at a decent level who need help.

Cricket is one of those rare sports played around the year for long hours. Players spend ages away from their comfort zones and support systems of home, family and friends. There are ups and downs on a daily basis, week after week, month after month.

And because of the length of the career span (or the lack of it) of a sportsman, the pressure is way too much on and off the field --- far more than in any other profession.

The story doesn't end there. Most cricketers are found wanting after they've
finished their cricketing careers. Most of us hardly manage to finish studies; generally don't have a skill other than bowling or batting and we rarely know what to do after hanging up our boots.

The problem isn't peculiar to India obviously. Here in England, there've been a fair number of cases of depression and nervous breakdowns. The difference perhaps is that they are documented.

For instance, the suicide rate amongst ex-cricketers was alarming, with it being found that after spending their prime in and around the ground always surrounded by cricketers, men didn't know what to do with their lives when their careers were taken away from them in almost a flash.

Many became alcoholic, some committed suicide. They needed help and it wasn't there. Matters became so scary that finally, the Professional Cricketers Association (the players body here) took notice and addressed it beautifully.

They opened a 24-hour confidential helpline for players, past and present. The helpline provides four 50-minute free sessions with qualified counsellors and deals primarily with depression and alcohol and drug-related dependency.

Anything, a bad season, a disturbed personal life, a freak injury, prolonged illness or post-retirement blues could easily lead to any of the above mentioned problems.

This helpline serves about 2500 cricketers, everyone who's ever had a county contract plus their families. Sportsmen are a different breed, usually self-dependent and used to handling everything on their own, they generally refuse to share their problems with anyone and tend to believe (in typically macho fashion) that they will manage.

Sometimes, it's just not possible. The increased suicide rate reflected that to perfection. In times of worry, family members or players themselves can call and get some much needed help and support from this helpline.

Depression and dependency on alcohol and drugs is rarely heard of amongst
cricketers in India but we have different issues. The pressure of playing in a cricket-obsessed country itself may be top of that list. Unfortunately, there is little research, so we dont know much.

I hope that India gets its own helpline soon enough, so no Himanshu has to run away from reality or worse. Himanshu did no wrong. After all, all he wanted to do was play the game he loved.

First Published: Aug 25, 2006 19:08 IST