Kohli serves a timely reminder on how mental health is viewed in Indian cricket

Ahead of India's opening Asia Cup clash against Pakistan, former India skipper acknowledges he was trying to fake his intensity of late
'Trust me, faking to be strong is far worse than admitting to being weak': Virat Kohli.
'Trust me, faking to be strong is far worse than admitting to being weak': Virat Kohli.

CHENNAI: Ahead of India's opening Asia Cup clash against Pakistan, former India skipper opens up about his struggles during the time away from the game. Around a month ago, the vast majority of the cricketing fraternity was wondering why Virat Kohli was not a part of the West Indies series. After all, he had played just four T20Is since the start of the year. The selectors did not address the media. The press release through which the squad was named didn’t have any explanation. And it was left to theories and assumptions.

There was no doubt that he was going through a slump — the numbers tell a good enough story. Almost every former and current player was asked about their opinion on Kohli’s ‘form’ and what he should be doing. Everyone else was giving their views, recommending him to take a break.

It got to an extent where Pakistan captain Babar Azam tweeted ‘This too shall pass. Stay strong. #ViratKohli’. Even as he returned to the side for the Asia Cup in the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan pacer Shaheen Shah Afridi told the former Indian captain, “we are praying that your form returns.” And yet, it wasn’t clear why he hadn’t played as much. If someone had the answers, it was the man himself.

And ahead of India's opening game against Pakistan on Sunday, Kohli finally opened up in an interview with Star Sports about his mental health, his struggles and voluntary time away from the game. “For the first time in 10 years, I didn’t touch my bat for a month,” the 33-year-old said.

“When I sat down and thought about it, I was like I haven't actually touched a bat for 30 days, which I haven't done ever in my life. That's when I came to a realisation that I was trying to fake my intensity a bit recently. I was convincing myself that ‘no, you had the intensity. But your body was telling you to stop.’ The mind was telling me to take a break and step back.”

Now, this might not be entirely surprising. Kohli is 33. No one has played more international cricket than Kohli since his debut. Between January 2011 and December 2021, he featured in 405 games across formats, 83 more the second on the list — Sri Lanka’s Angelo Mathews. And everytime Kohli plays, he has been the most expressive, spending more energy than the other 12 guys on the field at any given point.

The former captain admitted that it had eventually caught up with him. He acknowledged that despite the signs he pushed himself for how he was perceived and how he wanted to live up to it. "I have been looked at as a guy who is mentally very strong, and I am, but everyone has a limit and you need to recognise that limit or things can get unhealthy for you,” he said.

“I’m not shy to admit that I was feeling mentally down. This is a very normal thing to feel, but we don’t speak because we are hesitant. We don’t want to be looked at as mentally weak. Trust me, faking to be strong is far worse than admitting to being weak.”

It’s not the first time, Kohli has spoken about his mental health. He had opened up about the lows of the 2014 England tour, came in support of Glenn Maxwell when the Australian took a sabbatical. He has been among the few Indian male cricketers to have been vocal about mental health awareness.

Kohli has to be respected for speaking up at a time he feels comfortable. That said, every time, it has happened only after he has come back into the team, and understandably so. It speaks volumes to the progress there is to make in how mental health is looked at in the spectrum of Indian sports.

Since the pandemic broke, New Zealand's Amelia Kerr and Sophie Devine, Australia's Meg Lanning and Hannah Darlington and England's Ben Stokes and Sarah Glenn (to name a few) have taken a break from the sport to focus on their well-being. And that includes three current international captains (Stokes became one since he came back from the sabbatical).

During the Women’s ODI World Cup, the Indian team had a travelling psychologist with them and almost every player had spoken about the benefits of it. The then vice-captain, Harmanpreet Kaur was on the receiving end of unwarranted abuse for opening up about it after a string of low scores. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Indian cricketers, across genders, are not comfortable stating upfront that they are taking a break from the game.

Even after the welcoming comments, a psychologist didn't accompany the women's team since then, including the Commonwealth Games, where they won silver. While the men’s team has brought back Paddy Upton as a mental conditioning coach, they, too, do not have a sports psychologist with them, something that is a norm with most top teams in this day and age. And this is why, Kohli's statements hold incredible significance.

On Sunday, all eyes will be on Kohli as he takes the field for the 100th time in T20Is. He will be judged by the number of runs he scores and the approach he takes to his batting. However, what he should not be judged for, is taking a break for his mental well-being and starting a much-needed conversation, once again, in Indian cricket.

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