Despite England’s efforts, cricket continues to devalue mental health

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The recent outcry over England’s rest and rotation policy, exacerbated by Moeen Ali’s departure from the squad, reveals that mental health is still not treated with enough respect in the cricketing world. England are pioneering an admirable system that is preventing issues regarding the players’ wellbeing, rather than reacting to them. Criticism of it, no matter the context, is ignorant and short-sighted. The media has a duty to mirror positive reactions from the likes of Aaron Finch, who has hailed the policy as a model for other international sides to follow.

The uproar shows an inherent misunderstanding of the realities of modern cricket, and more importantly of the mental challenges involved in playing during a global pandemic. Writing for The Guardian, Ebony Rainford-Brent, who experienced first-hand the intensity of the bio-bubble last summer, reveals how challenging the time was, and how remarkably well England’s cricketers are doing to produce such good results under its pressures.

It is worth repeating that players such as Archer, Buttler and Stokes have spent a large portion of the last five months in bubbles, taking part in a packed home summer, playing in the IPL, and then rejoining England for their winter schedule. Needless to say, that is a very long time to spend away from family and friends, as we should all recognise after the year gone by.

The most prominent argument against England’s decisions has been an alleged prioritisation of Twenty20 over Test cricket – some claim England’s multi-format players should take their time off during this year’s IPL, or during England’s limited-overs games on their current tour of India. To argue this is to ignore the multi-dimensional nature of cricket today.

The dominance of the IPL is a reality that cannot be ignored, especially after Moeen Ali fetched a pay packet worth £700,000 in the recent auction. Players want to play in the most prestigious competitions for the same reasons others seek promotions at their place of work. Despite apparent assumptions to the contrary, they are human.

You cannot put off mental struggles. England’s policy of foreseeing these difficulties is laudable.

The IPL is not superseding Test cricket. By placing the very best players in the world under intense scrutiny, if anything it is doing a service to the longest format. There was much talk of the unfamiliarity of the second Chennai pitch to England’s batsmen, and yet when they are allowed to play on similar pitches with a white ball, they are ridiculed for turning their backs on the Test side. It seems no accident that the recent rise to prominence of England players in the world’s largest T20 leagues has coincided with such positive results in Asia.

The argument about the IPL’s relative benefits aside, the bottom line is that suggestions England players should put off their rest-time for two months is ridiculous in itself, and reveals a worrying unawareness of the nature of mental health. After being in a bubble for so long, you cannot say to these England players, “I know you are struggling, but you can go home in two months during the IPL”. This is not how it works. You cannot put off mental struggles. England’s policy of foreseeing these difficulties is laudable, and ultimately far more effective than dealing with them as they arrive.

Precursors of “mental health is the most important thing” being contradicted by monologues about results and having your best team playing all the time is not good enough. Ultimately, no one need worry about the prioritisation of Test cricket – it remains the pinnacle for Silverwood and England. But they also want to win the T20 World Cup, not altogether ridiculous, and allow players to play in the IPL with an eye to achieving such. England want results in all three formats, and for some reason are being panned for it.

England’s players are also not being forced to go home. There is a choice involved. As a group of 20 and 30-year-olds, many of them have partners and young families, with whom time together is hugely important. If they decide to honour the plans of senior management and go and see them, then it is no one’s place to criticise. To ask them to miss out on the cricketing and financial gig of a lifetime in April by sacrificing their current mental wellbeing is deplorable. You would think after such a year that some would have gained more perspective.

Image: David Molloy Photography via Creative Commons

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