Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, Andrew Flintoff, Monty Panesar, Sarah Taylor and now Ben Stokes. The list of English cricketers unable to cope with the mental toll that comes hand in glove with the game keeps growing. Once frowned upon, mental fatigue now triggers a more mature response, as is evident from the quick leave of absence and wholehearted support offered by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). But in the time of a pandemic, a different approach to tours may help. Why? Let's start with the changing concept of workload during the pandemic. Any cricket tour, be it home or away, is preceded by quarantine, the length of which depends on that country's protocols. For a visiting team, players may often have to travel without families and spend months in restrictive bio bubbles while the general public remains unlocked, creating a social inequity that is bound to get to the player.
Now consider the workload of Ben Stokes in the past three years. In 2019, Stokes was in West Indies, played the World Cup and Ashes at home before traveling to New Zealand and then South Africa for a tour stretching to February 2020. Once the pandemic set in, Stokes hopped from one bubble to another, playing West Indies and Pakistan at home before flying to New Zealand to see his cancer-stricken father Ged (he died in December). Factor in another short T20 series in South Africa after that, a two-month tour of India this February-March, a truncated IPL with the Rajasthan Royals and assuming charge of the England ODI team against Pakistan when the entire first-team had to be placed in isolation and Stokes was living in the bubble for almost 10 months out of a year since cricket's resumption. Till earlier this week, Stokes was also playing the Hundred for the Northern Superchargers apart from playing for Durham in the T20 Blast. All this while, Stokes was dealing with a finger injury as well.
When fit, Stokes is perhaps the first name penciled in any England squad, irrespective of the format. England have an institutionalized rest and rotation system, but Stokes's utility often makes it impossible to keep him out, case in point is the tour of India where he played every match. But every player, irrespective of how mentally tough he is, has a threshold. Stokes hit his, this week. There were some telltale signs, according to Kevin Pietersen. "It was quite interesting because when he got asked a question about his finger the other night, his response was not your normal response… it was like there was something more," Pietersen told Sky Sports. "He obviously lost his dad, there are a lot of things that have happened to Ben Stokes in the last couple of years. All I know is I want him to be OK."
The ECB has pledged to help Stokes while he is away from the game. "Our primary focus has always been - and will continue to be - the mental health and welfare of all of our people," Ashley Giles, England's director of cricket, has said. "The demands on our athletes to prepare and play elite sport are relentless in a typical environment, but the ongoing pandemic has acutely compounded this. Spending significant amounts of time away from family, with minimal freedoms, is extremely challenging. The cumulative effect of operating almost continuously in these environments over the last 16 months has had a major impact on everyone's wellbeing. Ben will be given as long as he needs and we look forward to seeing him playing cricket for England in the future."
Goes without saying, a board's unconditional support goes a long way in easing the mind of a cricketer dealing with mental fatigue. But the pandemic may warrant additional measures. A well-thought-out rotation policy - where every cricketer has mandated a compulsory leave of absence - is quickly becoming a necessity, especially in the subcontinent where cricketers often don't open up on mental stress. Traveling with families and partners has to be the norm if the cricketers are expected to give their 100 percent while staying in bio-bubbles. This is exactly why England's players are demanding clarity on whether families can accompany them for the Ashes later this year in Australia, where some of the world's most stringent border controls have been imposed. "I would be amazed if England have a full-strength team for the Ashes," former England captain Michael Vaughan has been quoted as saying recently.
Meanwhile, England have no idea how long they have to contemplate cricket without the man central to almost every memorable win in recent times. He was the one who gave England hope in a hopeless situation during the World Cup final. That exhilarating Ashes win in Headingley, one of the most epic Test battles ever, had Stokes written all over it. Without his 118-ball 82, England couldn't have eked out that one Test win in Chennai in what was otherwise a most depressing tour of India. To not get Stokes against a strong India for a five-Test series at home can be debilitating. But England will pray and hope his hiatus doesn't stretch longer. With a possible ODI tour of Bangladesh in mid-September, the T20 World Cup in the UAE and Oman and the Ashes in Australia, England have a lot on their hands this year.