Ben Stokes’ mental-health-induced withdrawal from the England squad underlines that we are living in a time in the sport where the greatest threat to players doesn’t come from anything they can counter with skill, writes RYAN VREDE.
Stokes joined an ever-growing list of high-profile sports stars shining a light on mental-health issues, when this past Saturday he announced he was taking an indefinite break from the game.
I immediately had a sense of the depth of his pain. Players like Stokes don’t just pass up the opportunity to play in a five-Test series against India, at home. These are the types of series they envision playing in as kids. These are the Tests that they see as opportunities to be the match-defining forces.
There is the added element of avenging a lost series to India earlier this year. This may seem petty to most, but exacting revenge is central to the great athlete’s psyche.
Stokes is gifted to a degree that enables him to be a match-defining force with bat and ball. This fielding is the third dimension of his potency. It can, and has, shaped the course of Test matches.
Stokes is at a point in his career were he is acutely aware of not only his direct value to England, but his indirect impact on India. Stokes has a presence few others in the game do. The opposition feels that and fears the effects of his prodigious gifts soaring.
Stokes knows all of this, and still he could not bring himself to compete. I empathise with a depth of pain so debilitating that you can’t do the things you’re best at.
And I emphasise can’t, which should never be interpreted as doesn’t want to. Stokes wants to play. He just doesn’t have the emotional and mental capacity to do so.
Ask anyone who has suffered with mental-health issues and they’ll tell you that it starts with a trigger for significant stress, and builds to a point where things that one would otherwise experience as manageable, feel extremely traumatic.
I know, I’ve been there.
Every experience like this further wears down your mental and emotional resilience. Eventually things that used to bring you a lot of joy, just don’t.
It sounds like this is the place where Stokes is at. We’d be foolish to think that he is alone in feeling this way. The more realistic scenario is that he is only alone in taking action to stop the pain, and finding a pathway to healing.
I’m certain there are many elite cricketers out there who are at breaking point, or broken. Life inside a bio-secure bubble is at the heart of this.
Stressors existed before bubble life and will persist long after it is a distant and terrible memory. But it acts as a prison that eventually poisons some of its most vulnerable inmates.
Freedoms that were once natural were stripped away. Mental escapes that were once essential were deemed too dangerous.
The nature of relationships that players relied on fundamental ways were dramatically transformed. Critically, physical touch and in-person conversations gave way to video calls and text messages, as tight restrictions around who enters the bubble took hold. Raising kids, building meaningful relationships, sustaining and strengthening marriages, among a myriad of other important disciplines in life, are hard enough to do in person. Trying to do so through a smart device is near impossible.
Then there’s the ghost towns stadiums became. The energy a crowd provides, once the lifeblood of players like Stokes, was removed and replaced by a combination of pre-recorded cheers and those of your teammates in the distance. Elite athletes need people in the stands as much as those in the stands need elite players. The symbiotic nature of that relationship must never be underestimated.
As a three-format player and an in-demand T20 gun, Stokes has been in more bio-secure bubbles than most over the past 16 months. His experience is therefore compounded, and I understand how that experience can lead to a decision many consider hyperbolic. When seen through the lens of his pain it is actually consistent with a decision a person suffering deeply would make.
In this regard, I’ve had fears for Quinton de Kock, another of the game’s increasingly rare three-format players, during this time. His eyes were lifeless where they once were joyful. He hinted at his mental state many times but it appears he felt compelled to keep playing. He was the Proteas captain, after all. There is a historical stoicism that defined many of his predecessors and the Proteas’ struggles made it incredibly hard for him to take a mental-health break without it being perceived as anything but professional abandonment and a gross dereliction of his duties.
De Kock lives a simple life. He plays cricket, and when he doesn’t, he spends his time in the outdoors, either catching fish or working in rhino conservation. I don’t know him personally, but on the weight of available evidence it is safe to assume that nature is where his soul is refreshed. It stands to reason that in the absence of this escape, he suffered greatly.
De Kock appears to have found some joy. Short breaks from his professional commitments would have helped. I’m relieved. His situation looked perilous.
Stokes has not pinned the blame on any individual or group, as has been the case for some high-profile sports personalities recently. In those cases, the media were soft targets. I don’t dispute that those athletes’ experience of the media was bad. That is different to the media being bad.
In reality, they were most likely already struggling privately with mental-health issues. Their experience with the media was likely traumatic because their mental and emotional tanks were empty, or close to empty. So, I don’t dispute their struggle. I just wish they had the self-awareness to articulate their experiences more clearly because it would help people understand the depth of scope of this disease.
Stokes stepping away from the game is significant because it breaks the stigma associated with doing so. He is mentally weak but, significantly, not in a manner that those who would sling that toxic accusation intend it. This, remember, is a man who played the greatest innings in Test history and scored 84* in a World Cup final that England won. He is not mentally weak in a manner neanderthals would have you believe.
He is mentally weak because his life and professional experience have worn him down. Specifically, the consistency and intensity of that experience has worn him down. The bubble has served as an incubator for his distress.
Stokes walking away in an act of self-preservation is significant because if a player of his profile and accomplishment can, anyone can.
I hope those experiencing significant distress do.