Radical ‘mental health rotation’ strategy could tackle bubble fatigue
Australia should consider a new rotation policy to combat the mental strain of living in a biosecure bubbles according to the national side's former team psychologist, Phil Jauncey.
Test players have begun the new year with the relative freedom of looser biosecurity restrictions in Melbourne than they will face over the next three weeks when they travel to Sydney and Brisbane for the final two matches to decide the winner of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
There will be more strict protocols on the movements of Tim Paine’s Australian team in Sydney and Brisbane.Credit:Getty
But with squad members, including out-of-sorts batting talisman Steve Smith, already admitting that months of living in hubs is taking a mental toll, a potentially gruelling schedule awaits them over the next 12 months – even if the calendar is not as busy as the World Cup-Ashes double of 2019.
Australia is due to embark on concurrent Test and Twenty20 tours to South Africa and New Zealand respectively next month, commitments that are followed by some players' own plans to figure in the Indian Premier League. Then there is a likely appearance in the World Test Championship final at Lord's in July, three one-dayers and three T20s in the West Indies, and the Twenty20 World Cup in India, all before Australia returns home for a one-off Test against Afghanistan and then the Ashes series.
With health experts warning that the rollout of virus vaccines will not necessarily bring an end to international arrivals having to quarantine in a hotel, players face the prospect of many more months in restricted environments as they tour the globe.
Australia coach Justin Langer has insisted player welfare is a high priority. Vice-captain Pat Cummins was rested for four of the six white-ball games against India that preceded the Test series. Langer defended having Cummins sit out then, saying "if he hadn’t spent a few days at home in this period then he might not have gone home until June".
The coach has also forecast support for team members who tell him they need a break but Jauncey, who toured with the Australian side between 2001 and 2008 and now works with Wayne Bennett's South Sydney Rabbitohs in the National Rugby League, believes it may need to be taken out of the players' hands.
He suggested a "a mental health rotation" of players for Australia's international assignments whereby management and selectors would "work it out for them rather than them working it out for themselves".
"We haven't seen people be this isolated other than people up in space stations for long periods of time," said Jauncey, who was also the Queensland team's pyschologist from 1986 to 2017 and has worked with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL and the Brisbane Lions in the AFL.
"I would say you're going to have to give people breaks from the bubble, especially those playing all three forms of cricket. They will just need to get away, get back home with family and be normal human beings rather than being in this restricted area."
Some Australian players have spent much of the last six months in various hubs due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and 2021 looks like it will be similar. Credit:Getty
Test opener David Warner predicted in November it was going to be challenging to go on all tours in 2021 and that "each individual will have to put their hand up and be brave" if they required a rest.
Jauncey said players who pulled out would be deserving of praise but the unfortunate stigma attached with those who withdrew from a match or series for mental health reasons, and team members' concerns about surrendering their positions, made it a difficult decision for an individual to make.
A Cricket Australia spokesman said there had been no player withdrawals from any of the competition hubs for reasons of mental wellbeing. But as the Australians remain in Melbourne before travelling to Sydney next week for the third Test, No.3 batsman Marnus Labuschagne said players had addressed how best to deal with the protocols they are living under and the benefits that could come with having family around.
"We have certainly spoken about it a little bit. I think the hardest thing currently with the COVID situation that just arose in Sydney … once your family comes into the hub and you are able to have your family around a bit more, move relatively freely … it does feel a little bit normal," he said.
"But certainly for the guys who haven't seen their partners over Christmas, and family and wives, it is definitely quite tough. But that is the situation we are in as professional cricketers currently.
"That is what the game is demanding from the players that are playing. We just have to keep our eyes focused … and hopefully life returns back to normal very quickly."
Labuschagne said having his wife, Rebekah, with him in the hub had been beneficial but not all players needed family by their side to help them "switch off" from thinking about cricket.
"For certain people, it is very important, and for some it's probably not as important. But I certainly found having my wife here for the last two games has been very beneficial," he said.
"I love having her around, it's nice to have some company, and it just gives you that switch off from potentially talking to teammates about cricket or stuff like that."
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