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Life in the bubble is okay for a while, but over time it is an existential threat

Why we should take seriously the issue players have raised of the mental toll that living in confinement takes on them

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
A restricted environment might exacerbate the feelings of disappointment and worry brought about by loss of form or a string of defeats  •  Samuel Rajkumar/BCCI

A restricted environment might exacerbate the feelings of disappointment and worry brought about by loss of form or a string of defeats  •  Samuel Rajkumar/BCCI

As reported on these pages earlier in the week, Eoin Morgan and Jason Holder had some revealing thoughts on the strain of living in biosecure bubbles and the likely fallout that comes from it. They were speaking at a virtual event organised by Chance to Shine, the charity working hard to bring cricket to state schools in England, and it was I who interviewed them.
"We managed to fulfil all the international fixtures this summer, an unbelievable achievement. But to keep that level of bubble for a 12-month period, or ten of the 12 months that we normally travel - I think it is untenable," Morgan said. "We've accepted that guys will come in and out of the bubble as they feel it is affecting their mental health. I do think we'll see more players pulling out of tours, and I don't think people should look down on [that]. They shouldn't feel like players are not doing their job or not committing to their country."
Of course, he is right. England's white-ball team will tour South Africa next month, leaving home on November 16th and returning on December 10th. (India's team leaves for a much longer tour of Australia at much the same time.) There are tours to Sri Lanka and India in the New Year for England. Morgan will lead the limited-overs group of some 40 people, his emotional intelligence an important aspect of everyone's ability to cope with the lifestyle forced upon them. For those who were part of England's home summer, are now at the IPL, and who will feature in the tours to South Africa and the subcontinent, it is a daunting prospect.
Bubble life is only okay for a while. It sneaks up on you, like many of the other issues that affect mental health, niggling away at confidence, patience and security. The denial of choice, the rigour of enforcement, the boredom, the loneliness, and the damned amount of time to think, to confuse and to overcomplicate, are threats to even the most self-assured. There is an almighty difference between not being able to do something and not being allowed to.
"I'm blessed to still be working," said Holder. "But something needs to be done to free things up a little for the players' mental health." He had two months in the bubble in England, then two days at home before leaving for the CPL in Trinidad, and then the IPL. "Some places are accepting families and some aren't. So it makes it harder to be away from your family and your loved ones."
In England in the past, the stiff upper lip transported throughout the Empire was used to put a brave face on things, however ghastly. The duty was to keep the flag flying: "Play up! Play up! and play the game," writes Sir Henry Newbolt in his poem "Vitai Lampada".
I was accepted onto the Hampshire playing staff in 1978, a time when 2nd XI players had to knock on the door of the 1st XI dressing room for entry to perform 12th-man duties such as delivering food and drinks and running baths. Injuries were treated with suspicion - as if a young enthusiast, eager to play first-class cricket, would fake a back problem! Bad shots were castigated, bad balls berated and poor fielding admonished without a thought for the nervous system or any understanding of circumstances and insecurity. The result was fear of failure, an enemy of the people.
Later, as captain, I suggested to the committee that one or two players might benefit from the help of a sports psychologist, an idea that was dismissed as "soft". By the time I retired in 1995, the power of the mind was better understood and its development seen as relevant in the improvement of sporting performance.


"Whether you think you can or you think you can't - you are right."
-- Henry Ford
Human beings are affected by thoughts that can be both empowering and destructive. What became clear over my years at Hampshire was that though we are indeed the dictators of our own thoughts and behaviours, we are often denied by our own limitations or by the dominant, perhaps intimidatory, factors around us. Therefore, we benefit hugely from help. Within the compass of the stiff upper lip are moral and physical qualities to be admired, but with the acceptance of the mind as a flexible and essential tool in the improvement of performance comes the key to unlocking the door of the true human spirit. Pointing it away from the darkness of the negative to the bright lights of the positive is the most essential aspect of good mental health. The longer I was captain, the more I saw cricket as, say, 70% mental and 30% physical. It is a fairly typical case of "I wish I knew then what I know now." I still kick myself for not grasping it sooner.
The problem with the biosecure bubble is that you cannot plough your own furrow. Were I a younger man, I might feel as if the air had stopped circulating. I would almost certainly do so if my form was suffering and the game was turning against me
Which is why the bubble brings an existential threat and why Morgan and Holder have identified the need for pastoral care as the international game returns during the days of coronavirus.
Quite how the idea works if a player picks and chooses his tours is unclear. It was easier back in the day because there was no money to speak of. The subcontinent was off limits for anyone who didn't like the food, never mind the daily grind and long hours in a hotel room with a colleague whose world spun differently from his own. Tony Lewis modestly talks of captaining England to Pakistan in 1973 because other, greater, names were unavailable. He rejoiced in the opportunity, drew the series in tricky conditions and made close friends both with his own players, who were delighted to embrace all that the hosts had to offer, and with the opposition, who applauded the visitors for their willingness to tour and warmth to their land.
Easy, really, compared to not being allowed in the corridor outside your room for the period of isolation and for the rest of the time being restricted to certain areas of the hotel only.
Today, the question of whether or not to tour is more complex. The players are contracted by the boards of control and paid as such. To miss a tour is to miss a small fortune by the standards of those who have gone before. Any board not sensitive to the emotions of its players is failing in its duty of care. Equally, at the time of Covid-19, the purse strings are tightened. Both sides will have to give a little. Probably the player might miss out on tour and match fees but still receive the retainer salary.
I have been surprised by my own experience of the IPL bubble in Dubai. I have a spacious room with a balcony and found the first week of total isolation straightforward. I wrote, read and worked on various projects that have kept me busy since lockdown first took hold. I watched the odd show, listened to music - even classical music, for the first time over any length of time - constructed an apology for a "gym circuit" that gave me enough exercise for a fellow whose best years of bat and ball are long past, and chatted on the phone. I ate pretty healthy food and added a beer or a glass of wine a night to the treats that this self-indulgent period allowed. I missed my family but otherwise had a good time.
When the week of isolation was done, I walked to the lift and headed straight for the pool. I swam for hours. "This is not the hard-knock life," I said to myself, even if there were seven more weeks of it.
But in the days that immediately followed, I became a little grumpy, which is uncharacteristic - I think! I baulked at the regulatory nature of each step we were all taking and the ideas of compliance. I muttered at the lack of freedom that overtook the release from confinement. I didn't blame anyone - in fact, I clearly saw the BCCI's need to restrict movement and meetings, to insist on certain rhythms and to deny certain access - but I began to overthink it. Locked up in the room for a week, I was fine - my space, my choices. Allowed out of the room but restricted in the ether, I felt as if my IP had been stolen.
This lasted for a couple of days, during which time I said my piece on occasions and otherwise moved away from the picture to emerge only for the matches. Then, suddenly, I was fine again. Like, move on Nicholas - you're here, you're lucky, get a grip. I was embarrassed that I snapped at someone and so I apologised. But I didn't feel guilty, more remorseful to have picked out a good person who just happened to be doing his job. It was the job that was daft.
I've been travelling for cricket all of my adult life. It is a privileged existence. As a player, you have training, practice and team-mates to fall back on. As a commentator you usually plough your own furrow a little more, exploring a life outside the game, which brings you new experiences and joys. The problem with the biosecure bubble is that you cannot plough your own furrow. I am glad to have a few miles on the clock - they help me complete the journey - and that fine men such as Sunny Gavaskar are a part of our team. Were I a younger man, with the wind beneath my wings, I might feel as if the air had stopped circulating. I would almost certainly do so if my form was suffering and the game was turning against me. Then, I imagine, the single room would become a lonely place.
Which, I'm sure, is Holder's point - "something needs to be done to free things up a little for the players' mental health". It is a very good point.
The fact is, everyone at every level is trying. There are no easy solutions to keeping cricket on the road and alive. We have to respect each other's problems and take care of our own. We will always look back in wonderment at how the ECB pulled off the summer of 2020, and soon enough, will do the same at how the BCCI barely missed a beat in bringing the IPL to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, I've noticed how much more most of the players seem willing to express themselves, both on the pitch and at interviews. It started with England and West Indies and continues now in this terrific IPL. In a relative comparison to another monster, the English Premier League, where there are goals galore and far less moaning from managers, the "talent" is grateful for what it has at a time when the shrill of the referee's whistle or the call of "Play!" seemed almost impossible. Hubris, huh!
Life can't be bad if stumps are flying, catches that defy gravity are being taken and AB de Villiers is making magic before our eyes. Onwards…

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator