Virat Kohli believes that mental health management will become "a norm of the future" alongside the physical workload management that is already prevalent in cricket. The India captain said he doesn't want a situation where his players fall away for a lack of space to express their issues.
The resumption of cricket, after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, starting with the English summer last year, has come with additional mental stress, especially for touring players. As the team that - alongside England - has played the most amount of cricket during this period, while also having the additional load of the IPL, India's top cricketers have had to deal with the challenge of going from one biosecure bubble to another with little break in between. Now they are scheduled to play the World Test Championship final and a five-match Test series in England, followed by the remainder of IPL 2021 and the T20 World Cup in the next four months. All that apart from the second-string team that will be playing in Sri Lanka through July.
"The kind of structure we're competing inside, for a long period of time it's difficult for players to stay motivated and find the right kind of mental space in one area and just do this stuff day in and day out, and [then] dealing with high-pressure situations," Kohli said. "So this will definitely become a norm of the future, where apart from the workloads, the mental health side of things will also come into the picture big time.
"You don't have an outlet at all in today's day and age. You're literally going to the ground and coming back to the room, and you don't have a space where you can just disconnect from the game and go out for a walk or a meal and a coffee and say, 'Let me refresh myself. Let me just get away from the game a little bit.' I think this is a huge factor, which should not be neglected. Because as much hard work as we've done to create this team, you don't want players falling out because of mental pressures and not having the capacity or space to express themselves."
Kohli has often endorsed this view on mental health. Using his own mental troubles on the 2014 England tour as an example, he has spoken of a "strong need" for professional help in Indian cricket. As things stand, there has been no official move in that regard on the part of the BCCI but seated alongside India coach Ravi Shastri, Kohli said he believed it could become a priority.
"And you'll see it during the Test series," Shastri said. "I'm not talking of the WTC, but if you add that as well - when you have to play five Test matches in this environment, in six weeks, it's no joke. Even the fittest will need a break. More than the physical part, it's the mental part. You can be destroyed mentally, being asked to do the same things day in, day out, and then go out and perform. And it's not easy to recover, especially if you've had a bad day. So it's important that you shuffle the guys around, and keep them mentally fresh. It's not the physical part. You keep them mentally fresh - because of the circumstances."
Coincidentally, the structure of this tour will allow India players time off and perhaps a lot more freedom of movement than the confines of the recently suspended IPL. While India was in the middle of an aggressive second wave when the tournament was called off, England recently recorded its first day without a Covid-related death in over a year, and vaccination has hit a steady pace. The WTC final ends on June 22, and the England series won't begin until August 4.
Kohli welcomed this break and said it wouldn't affect any momentum they could pick up from the WTC final. The lack of cricket in the interim is not something they're fazed by, he said, adding that preparation is "all in the head" if you've played in the conditions before, like most of the Indian team has - either at senior level or for India A.
"I think it's a great opportunity to refresh, restructure," Kohli said. "Hopefully, if things are okay out in England, we would have finished our quarantine periods - [would be nice] just for the guys to be normal for a few days and just disconnect again, understanding the pressure of a five-match series. Like in Australia, if we had to compete inside a [biosecure] bubble for that long a period of time, the whole tour would have been very tough.
"The fact that we had a little bit of freedom to go out and access the kind of things that the locals were, gave us a bit of space and time to reset and refresh. So I think it's absolutely fine. It'll give us time to regroup as a side and prepare again for a long series. That kind of setup is very important before you go into a lengthy series. We know that playing five Tests in England can be very challenging and daunting. So we want to have the most time before that series to set up for that series and be in the zone."