Cricket prepares for mental health challenges thrown up by hub life | David Schout | Sport

I n the initial months of life inside bio-secure bubbles, cricketers were reticent about their newfound circumstances. The element of nov...


In the initial months of life inside bio-secure bubbles, cricketers were reticent about their newfound circumstances. The element of novelty was perhaps yet to erode, but more importantly there was an understanding that others in the community were doing it far tougher. Boredom inside a hotel room, naturally, was preferable to losing one’s job altogether.

In recent weeks, however, the narrative has shifted. Players have made it abundantly clear that life within bubbles, while necessary in a Covid-19 world, has been a mentally draining experience.

England quick Jofra Archer was unequivocal. “You’re just counting days down,” he said inside the the Indian Premier League’s UAE hub. England’s white ball skipper Eoin Morgan said the current situation was “untenable” while Steve Smith, when asked if he would enter the Big Bash League hub after Australia’s upcoming series against India, was similarly defiant: “I’ll be honest with you – absolutely no chance.”

Reflecting on their recently concluded summer, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief medical officer found that players and staff had a ceiling of just “three to four weeks” inside the restrictive UK bubbles. “After that, you need time out,” Dr Nick Peirce said. Despite the warning, some of Australia’s top male cricketers face the prospect of a much longer period inside. Almost five months, in fact. The likes of Smith, David Warner, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have already been inside hubs since late August; first in the UK and now the UAE. When the IPL concludes next week, they will fly home for a fortnight of quarantine, before entering various hubs around the country for a series against India that concludes in late January.

It raises the question of whether Cricket Australia might grant players a break on wellbeing grounds during this all-important summer. Coach Justin Langer has already forecast decisions that “people won’t agree with”. But, he said, “our people, our players, our staff are high priority for us to make sure they’re healthy and happy”. The issue of mental health in the sport has become a pertinent one in recent years, and one the governing body is taking very seriously after a number of high-profile players took extended breaks from the game. This, in part, prompted CA to appoint a mental health lead.

Dr Hassan Mahmood, a UK consultant psychiatrist with expertise in the mental health of elite cricketers, said CA was a “leader” in the space. He noted the prospect of almost 150 days inside a hub, however, was worrying.

“That’s quite concerning. From the limited feedback we have had from players [in the UK], there has been concern expressed about spending extended periods of time within the bubble, and also their sustainability,” he said. “When Covid-19 hit the world, I felt this topic would become more of an issue. If you’re going to be playing cricket for weeks, or even months on end, without being able to leave the bubble, it is going to be tough.”

Currently, CA is operating hubs in Adelaide (for the Sheffield Shield) and Sydney (WBBL). South Australia’s Jake Weatherald has already departed the hub for mental health reasons, while England spinner Sophie Ecclestone turned down a contract with Perth Scorchers altogether.

Dr Mahmood stressed the importance of on-hand psychologists with teams this summer, and mental health literacy programs which allowed players to recognise the signs and symptoms when things were not quite right.

Pleasingly, it appears both CA and the players’ union, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, are well prepared to navigate the upcoming summer. The ACA’s general manager of player development and wellbeing, Justine Whipper, confirmed to Guardian Australia that a joint team had met weekly for the last few months to discuss plans. This included Michael Lloyd (Australian men’s team psychologist), Peter Clarke (Australian women’s team psychologist) and Lyndel Abbott (ACA’s in-house psychologist), who worked with the Australian team at the Rio Olympic Games.

Whipper said they were encouraging players to “self-manage” within the hubs as best they can. That is, to be armed with practical, go-to strategies to combat what might be a tough few months. Under a traffic light system, they encouraged players to recognise the relevant signs. “Green light is when you’re thriving, orange is when you’re starting to get a bit stressed,” she said. “So we want them to sit in the orange light for a short period of time and go back to green, rather than go down to red. We’re trying to empower them to be self-aware how they’re feeling.”

Lisa Griffith



Lisa Griffith and the Sydney Sixers at North Sydney Oval last month. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Sydney Sixers allrounder Lisa Griffith, currently inside the WBBL “village” at Sydney Olympic Park, said these preparations had been important. “We did some work with team psychologists to find what does ‘not-OK me’ look like, and what could potentially trigger that. We delved into that before we came in so there’s a plan of attack if things aren’t going OK.”

All eight WBBL teams are housed inside the village, including Sydney-based players who will remain inside for the tournament’s five-week duration. Griffith credited Cricket NSW, the ACA and the Sixers with acknowledging mental health support needed to be greater this season. “I’ve had my own mental health struggles and I feel very supported in here. They’ve done a really good job of recognising that the support we have had needed to be more. So coming into an environment that really underlines mental health issues when you’re stuck inside, they’ve put programs and structures in place to really help us.”

Getting to know on-field rivals, Griffith said, had been the village’s most positive outcome and a “humanising” experience. The allrounder said that the last few weeks of the tournament, however, could prove difficult from a mental health perspective given the restriction of movement and mounting losses for some teams. “I know there’s people in here, even one of my mates, who’s not going as well…there’s people who aren’t coping very well with this hub life, which I think is natural.”

Earlier in her career Griffith took a break for mental health reasons, and has since spoken publicly about her struggles. She joins a growing list of cricketers, including the likes of Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell, who have done the same. Whipper said these actions made things easier for others to come.

“Every time someone puts up their hand, it makes it easier for the next person to do the same. They have been such an impetus for change.” She said that while the upcoming summer might present certain challenges, significant progress in the mental health space held them in good stead. “We’ve done a lot of research on this recently and there is such a significant change in help-seeking in the last three to six years. It’s quite phenomenal. Players that feel comfortable within their environment and reaching out for help has increased dramatically.”

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Newsrust: Cricket prepares for mental health challenges thrown up by hub life | David Schout | Sport
Cricket prepares for mental health challenges thrown up by hub life | David Schout | Sport
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