“Cricket is, after all, just another profession, and doesn’t looking after the morale of its employees benefit the organisation? Given that long tours are tough, why make them tougher”?
Let us go through the facts quickly. On October 7, The Indian Express published a report mentioning that Virat Kohli has requested BCCI to abolish the archaic rule of having to seek permission to get wives and girlfriends to accompany Indian cricketers on tours.
For the uninitiated, wife Anushka Sharma had accompanied Kohli on the England tour, but only after the team manager submitted a formal request.
As reported by ANI, BCCI “sources” have informed that “the policy will not change now” and will be left to the “new office bearers”.
That is where all teams stand now. India are not alone in this: most other countries have restrictions on WAGs (to use a common acronym) travelling with the teams.
The fire has been fuelled by media over time. Matthew Engel, no less, had once referred to the arrival of England WAGs as “the TCCB-approved conjugal visit”. England media had cited the presence of families as a reason for England 2006-07 Ashes whitewash (triggering an outburst from Kevin Pietersen). And the Australian media repaid the favour by criticising their men when they relinquished the urn in 2015, drawing flak from the likes of Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson.
The fans have often taken a similar view. For example, they had blamed Anushka for Kohli’s abysmal show in England in 2014. To make things worse, announced that they would restrict the presence of wives on tours and ban girlfriends altogether.
The arguments over families accompanying cricketers on tours is far from new. Syd Barnes had taken 49 wickets from 4 Tests in South Africa (still a world record for a series of any number of Tests).
He then asked the authorities to pay for his wife’s accommodation. The authorities refused; Barnes pulled out of the final Test; the Great War intervened; and Barnes, arguably the greatest bowler of all time, never played for England again.
This was in 1913-14, over a century ago.
If we go further back, WG Grace had charged £3,000 to travel to Australia for the 1891-92 Ashes (he was an amateur, remember) and ensured wife Agnes and children Bessie and Charles accompanied him.
They are not the only ones. In fact, during those long tours of England, it was common practice for cricketers to bring families overs, rent an apartment (preferably in London), and use it as a base. The families did not necessarily travel across England, but the players could always turn to them for emotional support.
Now… why did they do that? Why do they keep doing that despite the archaic theory of on-field performances being hampered by the presence of partners?
Let us, for once, think of cricketers as human beings for whom the sport is a profession. Let us put ourselves in their shoes.
It is not easy to represent one’s country in sport. It involves years, decades of sacrifice and toil and dedication to reach that level. Childhood and teenage distractions need to be overcome and brushed aside. Athletes are typically the lonely, people who have left peers behind to move ahead.
While that has brought them success, it has also made them lonelier. While this is true for champions in most professions, it probably bears more relevance in sport, where you are often away on long tours, living out of your suitcases; after a while, despite the glamour and the money, monotony, and worse, creeps in.
Clinical depression and panic attacks had forced Marcus Trescothick to return from the India tour of 2005-06. Wife Hayley could not accompany him on the tour. And the sight of poverty on the roads at Vadodara pushed him over the cliff.
Trescothick returned home. He never played for England again. He still plays for Somerset (he will turn 43 this year), but that involves playing in England, which means he is never more than “three hours away from home.”
Trescothick is not the only one. Jonathan Trott was ridiculed after returning from Australia suddenly midway through the disastrous 2010-11 Ashes, but he had been diagnosed as well. Trott’s was not a case of depression: it was merely fatigue, perhaps triggered by Johnson’s fireballs.
The list is long, and includes some of the greatest names in history. Athletes are obviously among the physically fittest human beings, but the training rarely trains them to deal with the demons within. Staying away from families on long tours may or may not be reasons for their depression, but the company of dear ones will, in all probability, help them to open up.
It is still manageable till your side is winning (though clinical depression will still find a way to seep in). The gloom of defeat, on the other hand, hits you hard. That is when sides fall apart, “team spirit” fades away, the toughest minds are put to test. There are times when you seek for an outlet but there isn’t any, for your emotional support system is probably in another time zone in another continent, and your teammates are too busy sorting out their own emotions, and all you are left with is an empty bed in a familiar-yet-unfamiliar hotel room.
That is when it hits you.
Sport is one of many professions where travel plays an essential role. It is not uncommon for families to accompany professionals on the longer tours. Why, then, this discrimination against athletes? Is there even data citing that presence of partners and families hampers on-field performances?
Frances Edmonds had been with husband Phil throughout England’s disastrous tour of West Indies in 1985-86 (they were demolished 0-5). Another Bloody Tour, her delightful tongue-in-cheek chronicle, was probably England’s only high point of that disastrous expedition.
Edmonds captured the change in the mood of the touring party in characteristic style: “Most men, even the gayest dogs, tire of the meretricious pleasures of touring life after a few weeks, and pine for the lowly domestic comforts of home.”
After weeks of being battered, that was the only thing the cricketers had looked ahead to. Edmonds captured the considerable lift in the morale of the cricketers. Not that it altered the result – the chasm between the two teams was insurmountable – but at least it healed a few open emotional bruises, an aspect more important than is usually perceived.
And if anything, a losing side needs more support than a winning one. With the family around, at least the athletes will be in company of those who will stand by them irrespective of performances. The modes of communication may have changed, but touring professionals look forward to Skype calls with an eagerness to match the yesteryear wait for letters.
Mental illness continues to remain a taboo subject across the world, let alone in the Indian subcontinent. While that will take time to be rectified on a large-scale basis, it is time administrators of the sport extended their support towards cricketers.
Cricket is, after all, just another profession, and doesn’t looking after the morale of its employees benefit the organisation? Given that long tours are tough, why make them tougher?