In December 2019, Saurashtra batsman Sheldon Jackson was going through a "dark phase" and was on the verge of walking away from cricket, a game he had fallen in love with as a 12-year-old.
Only 32, Jackson was one of the pillars of Saurashtra's batting and had seen the team steadily rise to the top echelons in domestic cricket. Yet he was feeling a sense of hopelessness creeping in.
Team-mates began noticing Jackson's habits and moods. He would often restrict himself to his room after play, unlike earlier when he would be part of the team's fun and games and dinners.
"This was the time when a lot of players were speaking about mental-health issues and how it was impacting their cricket, but I wasn't comfortable speaking about it because I wasn't sure how it would've been perceived," Jackson tells ESPNcricinfo. "My team-mates felt I was overthinking, I was becoming very intense. On the field, I was always bothered by these thoughts. It was becoming a mental burden."
Remarkably, just four months later, Jackson played his part in Saurashtra's historic triumph when they beat Bengal in Rajkot to win their maiden Ranji Trophy title. Jackson finished the season with 809 runs in 18 innings at an average of 50.56, and was the third-highest run-getter among batsmen in the non-Plate category. It was a week of celebrations for Jackson, who became a father the day before Saurashtra were crowned champions.
A week after lifting the Ranji trophy, Jackson is at home, spending time with his newborn, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancellation of the Irani Cup match Saurashtra would otherwise have been playing against Rest of India.
"I've had time to look back at what has been a challenging season, one that knocked me at different times, although on the outside, it looked like nothing could go wrong. I'd planned a short holiday with friends after the Irani Cup, but that had to be cancelled. I'm happy changing nappies, doing duties of a nightwatchman at home, spending time with my newborn son."
Along with joy, there has also been a bit of sadness. The day before the Ranji final, March 8, Jackson mourned the demise of NC Gohil, his first coach, and the one person he wanted to thank for becoming a Ranji winner. It was Gohil who had spotted the 12-year-old from Bhavnagar and taught him respect the game and its nuances.
"It's hard to say if I would've retired, but I wasn't in the best mind space. I had to battle inner demons. My mother wasn't well, I wasn't feeling well physically"
"I started off going for just the summer camp, but he spotted the talent in me and gave me an opportunity to play for the districts a few years later," Jackson says. "He was the whole and soul of the Bhavnagar District Cricket Association. He's had a massive contribution to who I am today. He would've been proud to see me part of a Ranji Trophy-winning team. The last week, I've had time to reflect on my journey from there to where I am."
So what was the dark phase all about?
Most of it had to do with not getting near the India cap, the ultimate dream of any domestic player. Jackson had already aired his frustration on his Twitter account last year when he failed to be part of any of the India A tours. That outburst on Twitter, Jackson says, was the result of constant rejection.
"It was the hurt, maybe, of being ignored season after season. It's as if some voice is telling you: 'Mate, you aren't good enough. Nice try, but sorry.' That hurt."
Jackson ended the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy with 854 runs at an average of 47.44. But no Saurashtra player made the India A cut even though they finished runners-up.
The snub contributed to a dip in motivation as Jackson battled physical and mental issues. "All of it contributed to a dark mind space I found myself in [at the start of the season]. It's hard to say if I would've retired, but I wasn't in the best mind space. I had to battle inner demons. My mother wasn't well, I wasn't feeling well physically. Batting seemed a chore. I had this feeling that whatever I score isn't going to be noticed anyway. Only my wife, mother and Chirag Jani [his Saurashtra team-mate] knew what I was going through."
Jackson and Jani, three years his junior, have played together through their professional careers and are best friends. They went to the same school and the same academy in Bhavnagar, and played for the same club before sharing the Saurashtra dressing room.
"I played through an ankle injury after the quarter-finals of the 2018-19 season," Jackson says. "My toes used to swell up. I had to cut out my right shoe to play through pain, but that dream of winning the Ranji Trophy kept me going, even though deep down I knew I may have been pushing it.
"We didn't win and that added to my disappointment. And after our third game [of the 2019-20 season] against Uttar Pradesh, I was questioning myself. 'Is it still worth pushing it?' I've made runs season after season, only to be told, 'Sorry, we can't pick you for India A.' What next?"
After that game, Saurashtra had a new coach in Karsan Ghavri, whose influence Jackson credits for his turnaround. "He is a legend, and in cricket terms, he wasn't a 'coach coach' but a superb man manager. He let me be myself, allowed me my space and time. Over time, I realised whenever Cheteshwar [Pujara] wasn't around, I took a lot of pressure on myself. And I think somewhere it showed.
"Arpit [Vasavada] coming in and playing the way he has somewhat helped me go back to my old ways. Playing freely without worrying about protecting your wicket, not worried of the team failing if I didn't score. So in a way, the chats I had with Karsan bhai helped. He got the players into a good space. I certainly benefited from working under him. He brought a lot of calmness inside me. I wasn't thinking about runs, selection. I was just happy to play every game and perform."
Jackson says speaking to his close friends outside cricket also helped give him perspective. "I used to think cricket was a skill sport, but I was wrong," he says. "My friends, Marshall and Visakha, who I work out with, pushed me to get physically fit. I could sense when I was out on the field the whole day, how different I felt once I lost weight and worked on building muscle.
"I am 33 but I can proudly compete with a 22-year-old. I realised to get back in the IPL or play at a higher level, I needed this tuning of not just the mind but the body as well. I have been training with Marshall [a gym instructor] and have seen a huge change in myself. Now, I'm even more hungry to keep playing. Because I think I found my recovery times improving as the season went along."
"It's natural for me to have expressed disappointment, you aren't human otherwise. But now I have new perspective. There's purpose to my game, to keep going regardless"
For the moment, Jackson is at peace, having put behind him the hurt of selection snubs, but he says matters of the mind are still a work in progress. He says winning the Ranji Trophy has helped a great deal, for starters, but he's keen to continue working on his mind and body to ensure he sustains the hunger for runs.
"I'm feeling light," he says. "It's natural for me to have expressed disappointment, you aren't human otherwise. But now I have new perspective. There's purpose to my game, to keep going regardless, without expecting that reward. It's the love for the game."
Soon, Jackson will resume work with the Income Tax office, his employers, in Ahmedabad. He has files to scrounge through, cases to handle, and pages of notes and training material to revise. Jackson couldn't be more thankful for the support from his employers.
"Work beckons now. That's the life of a domestic cricketer during the off season," he says with a smile. "They've been the most supportive over the year. It's this security that has also helped me. Today, if a cricketer isn't part of the IPL, you need that security of a job to keep you going, because you can't play forever. A Ranji Trophy title has given me the hunger to keep going, when it seemed as if my time was up. The fire is still burning."