Mohammad Shami
India's leading paceman Mohammad Shami, by his own admission, could have been lost to cricket but for his family and close circle of friends. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Mohammad Shami, one of India’s leading pacemen and the highest wicket-taker in One-Day Internationals in the world last year, had a startling revelation to make during an Instagram chat a few days back. He revealed that he had thought of committing suicide thrice while battling personal issues a few years ago.

The genteel sport of cricket is no stranger to instances of suicide or acute depression. However, while a majority of such instances have occurred in England, such examples are rare in the Indian sub-continent and it’s in this context that Shami’s admission to teammate Rohit Sharma deserves a huge pat on the back.

“I think if my family had not supported me back then, I would have lost my cricket. I thought of committing suicide three times during that period due to severe stress and personal problems,” said the paceman, who is known to be quite a tough cookie who has seen enough upheavals in his personal and professional life to emerge at the top of his game now.

It was about two years ago, in 2018, when Shami’s wife Hasin Jahan had accused him of domestic violence and lodged a complaint with the police, following which, the Indian player and his brother were booked under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code. The upheaval in his personal life forced his employers, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, to withhold the player’s central contract for a while.

My experience is that the males in the western world tend to act tougher and thus have a greater need to hide their mental and emotional securities than Asian cricketers that I have worked with. This is a generalisation, but possibly a fair one.

- Paddy Upton, Mental coach

“I was not thinking about cricket at all. We were living on the 24th floor. They [family] were scared I might jump from the balcony. My brother supported me a lot.

“My 2-3 friends used to stay with me for 24 hours. My parents asked me to focus on cricket to recover from that phase and not think about anything else. I started training then and sweated it out a lot at an academy in Dehradun,” Shami said.

Asked if it’s this so-called ‘support system’ (that Shami refers to) that a cricketer receives from his inner circle of family and friends in countries like India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka that makes them less susceptible than the individualstic societies from where more mental health cases were reported, Paddy Upton, the high performance coach of India’s 2011 World Cup-winning team, had an interesting answer. Speaking to Gulf News late last year after Australian Glenn Maxwell’s tryst with depression, the South African coach said: “At a glance, it (family support) might appear that some reason for this could be the cultural differences. My experience is that the western males tend to act tougher and thus they have a greater need to hide their mental and emotional securities than the Asian cricketers that I have worked with. This is a generalisation, but possibly a fair one.

Glenn Maxwell of Australia was one of the most recent cases of a famous cricketer battling depression. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

“The Asian athletes that I have worked [with] seem to have more of an acceptance of these so-called weaknesses, more than the westerners who invest more into fighting or hiding them. This said, suicide cases in cricket represent only a very small percentage of the population and research shows that suicide rates in Asian nations are, in fact, higher than in the West with comparatively more females and elderly people committing suicide than their western counterparts,” said Upton.

Records reveal that cricket had seen as many as 20 cases of suicide due to acute depression – with England wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow’s father David being the last Test cricketer to commit suicide, in 1998. The battle with depression is far more common with an overwhelming number of cases from countries like England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Leave aside the number-crunching, but important names like late New Zealand batting great Martin Crowe, England’s Ashes heroes Steven Harmison, Andrew Flintoff or South African bowler Andre Nel have gone on record on the dark phases of their lives. Flintoff’s BBC documentary, in fact, says that at least one out of every ten cricketers have had to deal with it sometime.

What makes the top-flight cricketers so prone to depression? Upton says: “All top level athletes have two primary sources of pressure and stress: One is the actual on-field performance in front of so many people and its  consequence; and the other from their personal lives. The personal stress is made worse by the fact that they spend so much time touring away from family and friends, and also by the fact that they are expected to be mentally tough – which drives them to try and hide these difficulties from others.

“When emotional or psychological stress is hidden or internalised in this way, it eventually comes to a head like the proverbial pressure-cooker,’’ Upton observed.

Maybe, Shami can explain better.