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There are no simple answers, but we must learn to care

The processes which lead a man to take his own life are at least as complex and difficult as those by which he continues to live. This is from Al Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. To find a rationale for suicide — especially one involving a friend — is near-impossible. But we try. The shock is followed by the question: What could I have done? Family and close friends must feel the helplessness of that query with far greater force.

When the news of V.B. Chandrasekhar’s death came, it wasn’t his entertaining batting that flashed into my mind, but his smiling eyes and the look of a man satisfied you had enjoyed his spontaneous one-liner.

Once, during a function, he asked why I was going home early. “I have a little baby waiting,” I said of my son, then a few months old. “So you want to go home and watch him grow?” he asked.

It is tempting to look for simple answers to the complicated question of why a man apparently in good health and much loved should choose to self-destruct. As Mike Brearley wrote in the foreword to David Frith’s book on cricket suicides, Silence of the Heart, “In the end, we know little…. human motivation is mysterious.” Perhaps it was a financial problem, perhaps it was a combination of issues; nothing matters now. VB loved cricket, and cricket loved him back, welcoming him back in various capacities, as coach, selector, commentator, team owner. In each of those fields he left his mark.

Understanding failure

On the New Zealand tour of 1989-90, he began with scores of 92 (13 fours and four sixes), opening the batting with Navjot Sidhu, and made 71 in the next game, opening with W.V. Raman. Yet, when Sidhu had to return home with injury, Chandrasekhar didn’t open in the Tests. Manoj Prabhakar did, as Dilip Vengsarkar replaced Sidhu. In the end he finished his career with just seven One-Day Internationals and a single fifty. It may have helped him understand failure better, as he took young players under his wing.

“It seems so counter-intuitive,” wrote Ed Smith, author and current England selector, “that professional sportsmen are psychologically at risk. Sport begins as a dream. Why, then, does the dream sometimes sour? The drive which motivates sportsmen is the same drive which leaves them perpetually dissatisfied. Having climbed one rung, sportsmen just want to focus on the next heave upwards — a ladder that never ends.”

Here is Peter Roebuck, who also took his own life, “It’s strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men. It is surely the very worst game for an intense character, yet it continues to find many obtuse sensitivities amongst its players. Men of imagination, men of ideals risk its harsh exposures.” Perhaps men of humour too.

Connection?

Is there a connection between cricket and suicide, as Roebuck implies? According to Tim Noakes, professor at the Cape Town University, and one-time director of the South African cricket team, cricketers are more prone to commit suicide than any other sports professionals. In the preface to Silence of the Hearts, Frith writes that cricketers are at greater risk of suicide, and it is a “far more serious problem than the match-fixing scandals.”

Since then, one of the major causes that led many players to suicide — clinical depression — has been brought out of the closet by international cricketers. Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, Michael Yardy, Graeme Fowler, Shaun Tait, Iain O’Brien, Andrew Flintoff, and Sarah Taylor have all written of their fights against depression. Some diagnosed the problem only after their playing days and then joined the dots that told them it had been there earlier too.

“I sometimes wish I had an arm in a cast or a stitched up head, because people can see that injury; but they can’t always see that you’re mentally injured,” Fowler wrote. In England there is awareness; a support system follows such awareness. The players association has done good work.

Stigma

In India, there is a stigma, and the players associations aren’t even in place to tackle such issues. It is something the BCCI and the Committee of Administrators need to handle with compassion. In the cases above, signs were detected either by the players themselves or by colleagues, but lack of information meant they weren’t dealt with.

A World Health Organisation report last year stated that 6.5 percent of Indians suffer from “some form of serious mental disorder.” That’s upwards of 75 million people. To imagine that cricketers — or any other professionals — are immune is dangerous. Ignorance is all around, so it is never too late for the BCCI to make a start. Players, as we know, continue to be vulnerable well beyond their playing days.

V.B. Chandrasekhar was many things to many people. A husband, father, and pillar to his family. A mentor to youngsters. A friend to all. To the BCCI he could be a warning. His death must not be allowed to go in vain. We owe him that.

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