CHENNAI: July 23, 2017, London. On a rainy evening at the Lord’s, the Indian women were well on the course to make history in the ODI World Cup final against England, with Punam Raut and Veda Krishnamurthy putting them in a commanding position. So much so that they would have been crowned champions even if the rest of the evening was rained off as they were ahead of the DLS score by 14 runs after 42 overs in the chase.
Requiring 47 runs from eight overs with seven wickets in hand, Krishnamurthy hit the first couple of balls to boundaries off the 43rd over from Anya Shrubsole to bring them even closer. They were inching towards getting hold of the elusive trophy. The long-awaited dream was on the horizon, except that it didn't materialise. Shrubsole trapped Raut on the pads and ran through the rest of the batting as India crumbled from 189/3 to 219/10, falling short by a meagre nine runs. The pressure had gotten to them.
"They needed around 30 odd runs, and this Mexican wave started. I called up Biju (George) sir (the fielding coach) and I said, 'I'm very much worried now.' Because what happens, you start panicking now (when you see the crowd react and cheer you on) and that is exactly what happened. By the time the entire round of the wave ended, we lost three to four wickets. And that cost us the game," the then head coach Tushar Arothe told this daily.
Soon after the final, Krishnamurthy and Rajeshwari Gayakwad spoke about how having a sports psychologist with the team could have been helpful. They said that they would have had someone to talk to about what they go through during the long tours and high-pressure situations.
In 2019, Harmanpreet Kaur told this daily that the team had requested the board to have a sports psychologist travel with them to discuss things when the players are not fine. It did not transpire, and India went on to lose in another World Cup final in 2020, this time in the shortest format against Australia.
Which is why, when India skipper Mithali Raj confirmed ahead of the New Zealand series that they have sports psychologist Dr. Mughda Bavare travelling with the team for the ODI World Cup, it was a much-welcomed move. Because for the first time, the team had someone to talk with. And the players are all-praise for the benefits of having a team psychologist. The latest among them was Harmanpreet, who after a poor run of form, found her touch in the final ODI and capitalised on it with a century in the first warm-up game.
The 32-year-old said that when she went into a shell after not scoring runs, Mugdha reached out to her and helped her figure out ways to get out of it. Earlier, Yastika Bhatia and S Meghana, too, spoke about how helpful it has been to have Dr. Mugdha travelling with the team.
"After I spoke to her, I felt I was actually looking for that. I had things in my mind, but I was not aware of it because of lot of pressure, but after talking to her I got the solutions. I got clear ideas after talking to her, those things really helped during the last 2-3 games. I'm sure the team is also benefiting from her, because I can see she's continuously talking to all the players, which is very important and that will really help us," Harmanpreet said during a press conference on Wednesday.
While the conversation around mental health has gained significance over the years, it has only gotten even more important in the last couple, with the bio-bubbles and quarantines kicking in. New Zealand superstars Sophie Devine and Amelia Kerr took a break last year. Recently, Australia pacer Hannah Darlington and England spinner Sarah Glenn opted out of the World Cup, citing mental health and well-being reasons.
Consulting sports psychologist Priyanka Prabhakar, who has worked with the Indian hockey teams and several cricketers, said that a lot of pre-competition work goes on, especially before a high-pressure event like the World Cup.
"When you are not travelling and hearing from them (players), you won't be able to understand the missing link or gap. But, when you actually go and see, you'll be able to see things from a psychological perspective and you end up asking the players the right questions and understand them better," she said.
She felt that if the psychologist is being with the team, they could sense the mood and energy level of the players and talk to them about the things they can and cannot control, adding, “Psychologists will help them to take responsibility for things they can control, challenge their doubts and give them confidence, which will help the team.”
Priyanka added that with Covid around, the pressure has increased multifold. “The responsibility of not being the person to get infected and spreading it to others (for the players) means that there is a constant fear. When the physical environment isn’t safe, mentally you will not feel safe. That can create added pressure. And they are not just athletes, they have families and things can be going on in their personal life. It’s very important for them to know how to unwind even with the way the situation is right now,” she said.
Going into the ODI World Cup, India are among the favourites to reach at least the top four despite the recent results. In 2017 and 2020, they almost got their hands on the ICC trophy before succumbing to pressure. This time, however, irrespective of whether they go full-length or not from there, they have given themselves the best chance to handle it mentally when the pressure piles on.