Whose problem is Praveen Kumar?
Uttar Pradesh competed in the ongoing Vijay Hazare Trophy without their two Kumars, both of whom, nevertheless, have grabbed headlines. Bhuvneshwar made his Test debut in Chennai, and Praveen was suspended for a serious code of conduct breach in a Corporate Trophy game earlier this month.
It was the latest, and most serious, transgression for Praveen, who has had disciplinary issues both on and off the field through his career, like the alleged street fight with a doctor in Meerut in 2008 or a spat with spectators in Port of Spain during India's tour to the West Indies in 2011. But, match referee Dhananjay Singh's report, which stated that Praveen was "not in a mental state" to play the game, is probably the strongest official indictment against the player.
Predictably, it has led to sharply divided opinion, and raised question marks over the handling - especially within the BCCI's set-up - of a fairly volatile character. "Had he been mentally unfit to play, how could he have given such consistent performances for UP and for India for all these years?" asked Gyanendra Pandey, who was the Uttar Pradesh coach for five years before handing over charge to Venkatesh Prasad. "PK is short-tempered and in your face, so sometimes his actions are misinterpreted by those who don't really know him."
Praveen's case is best seen in context. After being dropped from the Indian team, he suffered a recurrence of his tennis elbow in UP's Ranji Trophy opener against Delhi. With the IPL round the corner, Praveen possibly saw the Corporate Trophy, his first competitive outing for almost three months, as his best chance to return to national reckoning - and that could have led to his crossing the line.
Prasad, who worked with Praveen during the former bowler's stint as the India and the Royal Challengers Bangalore bowling coach and billed him as a perfect team man, put his finger on the problem and a possible solution. "Everyone has their own emotional boundary and his may be different. He is a great competitor who speaks his mind, to coach, captain, anyone, and if you are able to take it in the right sense, it can be of benefit to the team. Handle him as a friend and you've won half the battle. He'll do anything for you on the field. On the other hand, it is very easy to needle him."
Yet one UP teammate, requesting anonymity, said many were not really comfortable with him these days. "Most of the players in the dressing room are hesitant to approach him. They are not sure how he will react."
Paddy Upton, who worked as a mental conditioning expert of the Indian team for three years along with coach Gary Kirsten, said there were "many fiery individuals" in the sport who, if "well-managed", could be "world beaters and seldom be problematic."
The consensus is that players like Praveen, with anger management issues, need to undergo a counselling program. That's a touchy subject in a country that looks down on mental conditioning almost as a kind of weakness.
In fact, the BCCI has, at its National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, been conducting for the past few years a mental conditioning program for all junior cricketers based on a module by Sandy Gordon, the psychologist who worked with the Indian team in their 2003 World Cup campaign. It's fairly intensive, including four to five sessions on motivation, goal setting and anger management and one-on-one sessions, too, where necessary. It was used by members of India's victorious 2012 Under-19 World Cup campaign and has been used on occasion by younger players, incuding Manoj Tiwary, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina and Ajinkya Rahane.
For players like Praveen, though, the program possibly came too late, and has not been made mandatory by the BCCI. Till now, the Board hasn't summoned Praveen to go through counselling or mental rehabilitation at the NCA. While a plethora of physiotherapists and physical trainers have been employed to look after the top cricketers' physical fitness, their mental framework seems to have been ignored.
Sports psychologist Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, who spoke to Australian and Indian players while researching a doctoral thesis on "emotional labour in professional cricket", advocates close and detailed interaction with such players. "A fine or a sentence - is it a lesson? Has he understood the fine print? Has it told him that he needs to look into himself? Someone needs to show him a mirror." Such players, she says, have a lot of energy that needs to be tapped into and channelised, else in the long run their behaviour will see them lose out on maximising their potential.
"They need someone they respect talking to them… It is all about self-awareness, and this insight of figuring what works and what doesn't may do wonders to him. In PK's case, this part of his personality needs just a little tweaking because if you don't do that you lose a lot of potential players and performers."
It's the sort of care that New Zealand batsman Jesse Ryder, who suffers from drink and anger management issues, has received. He played the IPL in India last year while travelling with his clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo.
Upton suggests that coaches and captains should be trained in man-management. He said that similar to the corporate sector, "players benefit most when they are having quality leadership. I believe the greatest benefit to players is if coaches and captains have regular good quality leadership support."
India's cricketers occupy a unique space in the social structure, where to acknowledge any sort of physical ailment, leave alone mental, is a sign of weakness and puts one's financial security at risk. This, say those who have dealt with cricketers, leads them into denial mode - and this is where a man-manager comes into play. With the BCCI treating the team manager's post as a major vote bank handout rather than appointing a professional, it is imperative for either of the captain and the coach, if not both, to be an exceptional communicator and motivator.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo