Kolkata: Ever since international cricket resumed last year in July after nearly a five-month break due to the pandemic, the sport had been largely ignoring the warning signals. Now, Ben Stokes has turned out to be the biggest casualty of Bio Bubble fatigue on Friday and who knows, more may follow suit.
It’s a no-brainer that England will miss their matchwinner dearly in the high profile five-Test match series against India, while his franchise Rajasthan Royals are also resigned over his availability for the remaining part of the IPL 2021 in the UAE which follows thereafter. The Ashes Down Under in November-December could be the earliest when the star allrounder could be expected to end his indefinite break - but one has to wait and watch on the issue.
The cricket fraternity has spoken out in favour of Stokes, a larger-than-life performer, who had been fighting on the personal front over the past year - having lost his father Ged Stokes after a battle with brain cancer. Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan great and now Director of Cricket of Stokes’ IPL team Royals, said players could “only deal with so much” - but the issue is has the cricket establishment been concerned enough to take any pre-emptive action against the stress and strain of living in a bubble for months together?
Stokes’ decision will find a greater resonance in today’s sporting world - coming as it is after American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles’ pullout of a number of events at the ongoing Tokyo Olympics. Her struggles followed those of Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, another face of the Games who lost in the third round on her return from a mental health break, having withdrawn from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon - saying she had been battling depression and anxiety.
The trigger for each performer is certainly different - but Stokes’ decision will certainly rattle the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) - who had been following a controversial rotation policy this year so that their key players can have a reprieve from the bubble life and recharge their batteries. This is where an off-the-cuff remark from one of the top bosses of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) during the IPL this year was somewhat jarring when he said the Indian cricketers were mentally tougher and could handle the rigours of a bubble life better than their peers from some other countries (read: England and Australia).
The question is while the Indian cricketers have chosen to grin and bear it, it’s possibly time to spare a thought about them. The elite group in England team could spend some quality time with their families during a three-week break after the World Test Championship (WTC) final, but a long haul on the road awaits them now. A tightly scheduled Test series in England will be followed by a sojourn to the UAE in a completely different climate, where a one-month duration of IPL will be followed by T20 World Cup, where the pressure of expectations to win a major ICC tournament after 2013 will be huge.
Meanwhile, the group under Rahul Dravid and Shikhar Dhawan had been finding the going tough in Sri Lanka. Three players - Krunal Pandya, Yuzvendra Chahal and Krishnappa Gowtham tested positive for Covid-19 and would be staying back in Colombo as the rest of the team flew back after a somewhat chequered tour. In all, they were holed up for over 45 days - first a 14-day quarantine in Mumbai before flying to the islands - for playing just six white ball matches.
It’s possibly time for the cricket establishment, in general, to take up the mental health issue more seriously - before it implodes further.