When you are a teenager thinking about a career in cricket, there’s a touch of the sublime to your life. You have a bat in your hand and are beating the living daylights out of your peers, and life’s good. Or you’re making a five-and-a-half-ounce leather sphere do unnatural things over 22 yards. What begins as a dream in a backyard develops into a fully fledged obsession that somehow morphs into a day job. To play cricket for a living is a luxury given to few, but those that do so successfully in this day and age have long since given up the pretence that this is the holy grail they aimed for. To be a professional cricketer in 2013 is a dream come true, but it has the potential to turn into a nightmare.
In India, the de facto centre of the cricketing universe, a reasonable first-class cricketer’s calendar is as follows: from September through January, eight four-day Ranji Trophy matches, perhaps a stint at the knock-outs, followed by the Corporate Trophy tournament for the chaps that pay you a monthly salary all year just to appear in one tournament, then domestic one-dayers, the Twenty20 Cup, the Indian Premier League for two months, and before you know it the Ranji season is upon you once again. Essentially, if you’re a successful cricketer making your living off the game, expect to have no life of your own.
When you’re playing for your country you tend not to notice these things. After all, a sportsman’s career is limited, and ends at a time when most people are peaking at their jobs and looking forward to their best earning years. As a cricketer, you’re done in your mid-30s, while a bright “civilian” might reasonably expect to make Chief Executive Officer in their forties and rake in the cash well into their fifties. As a cricketer, you lose control of life early on and gradually learn to accept that the pursuit of the good life results in sacrifices you never signed up for.
A classic example of cricket’s churn is Murali Kartik, the left-arm spinner who played eight Tests between 2000 and 2004, and 37 ODIs between 2002 and 2007. It has now been six long years since he played for India, but Kartik’s life has nevertheless given him no time to catch his breath. “For all practical purposes I’ve played 19 back-to-back seasons,” he says. “Between the Ranji season for Railways and playing county cricket in England, there’s been no break at all. If I’m expected to deliver for my Ranji team, I’m expected to do even more in England as the overseas player. I’m not just answerable to my captain, but to the club, its members and everyone else.” Kartik has turned out for Lancashire, Middlesex, Somerset and, most recently, Surrey in the years that Indian cricket has deemed him surplus to requirements.
“For the best part of the year my home in Delhi is unoccupied and locked up. You work hard, earn money and make a home for yourself, which is what everyone aspires to, but you don’t have the luxury of enjoying it,” says Kartik. When in England, he is well taken care of, a lovely residence his for the season, a top-of-the-line sponsored car his to drive, and yet it’s just not the same. “There was a five-year period when I played the full season at home for Railways and away in England when I kept a record of how many nights I spent in my own bed each year. The scorecard was 22, 27, 23, 24 and 25 across those years. Can you imagine what it’s like only being in your own home for less than a month in the whole year, spread out over three or four trips?”
When you reconsider the fact that Kartik has not played for India in six years, you might get a sense of what life has become for the modern cricketer. With leagues around the world, teams to represent in different competitions and good money to be made, eyelids aren’t batted at overloaded schedules. Unless, of course, you are Gautam Gambhir, who has always known when to put family first and gone out of his way to do so, even if it has meant tempting the cricketing gods. In the 2008–09 season Gambhir was at the height of his powers. In a six-match run, he scored 179 and 97 against Kevin Pietersen’s England, followed by 72 and 30 not out in Hamilton, 16 and an epic, match-saving 11-hour vigil that yielded 137 in Napier, 23 and 167 in windy Wellington, 1 and 114 against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad, and 167 against the same opponents in Kanpur. While in the form of his life, Gambhir then opted out of the Mumbai Test, choosing instead to be with his family for a momentous occasion.
“All my life I had missed the family celebrations. In the normal course you would be with your cousins, your extended family and feel a part of things,” says Gambhir, who sought and received permission to miss a Test match to be at his sister’s wedding. “Clearly if you start playing cricket, it’s understood that takes priority over everything else. Still, there are times when you have to make an exception and this was an obvious case. If you’re not going to be around for your sister’s wedding, then what’s the point of it all?”
When Gambhir chose to miss a game, it did not go unnoticed. Jayawant Lele, a popular former secretary of the BCCI, said: “I would never have allowed it if I were in charge. I would have asked him to play for India first.” Anshuman Gaekwad, who had served as selector and manager, added that such a decision was unimaginable in his playing days and pointed to the example of Sunil Gavaskar, who did not see his son until he was two months old because he was away on tour.
“As cricketers you never want to miss a game, whether it is for your club, state or country,” says Gambhir. “But, beyond a point, you realise that family is important too. Somewhere you have to draw the line and be there for the people who have sacrificed so much to let you play cricket.” If Gambhir signalled his intentions early enough, opting out of a Test when he was making centuries for fun, he stuck to his guns when times weren’t so kind. He skipped a Test to be at his own wedding – “I had to be there” – and left a Test against England in Ahmedabad when his maternal grandmother, Asha Gulati, who virtually raised him, passed away, only to return in time to close out the game. “That was the least I could do. All my life I’ve missed out on important events because I was away playing cricket, and my family was understanding. These were things I felt I should not miss,” says Gambhir.
These days it’s fashionable to knock Gambhir because form and big scores have deserted him, but you can’t fault the logic that drives him. In a few years he won’t be playing for India any more, and then he will have to return to a world where family sustains him and they will know he stood by them when it mattered most. It’s a warm embrace he’ll return to, irrespective of how many runs he’s made or how his career ends, and one he has earned.
If Gambhir can take that view, being comfortable in his skin after winning the battle to make a good life as a professional cricketer, there are others, even more successful, who see things differently. Kumar Sangakkara is arguably Sri Lanka’s best batsman of all time. At 22, still working his tail off to get a law degree and follow in his father’s footsteps, Sangakkara was sent on a tour of South Africa, with only three Tests (in which he had not crossed 25) under his belt. In Durban, against an attack that was led by Shaun Pollock, he made 74 and a star was born. “I do remember my first international tour because that was a make-or-break trip for a new player like me. To pit myself against a damn good side and to see if I could last, that was the challenge,” says Sangakkara. “Also it’s strange how I can remember my early tours and my most recent ones more vividly than those in between.”
It’s strange to Sangakkara, but anyone who has jogged on the treadmill long enough will corroborate this fact: beyond a certain point it’s all a blur. Sangakkara is the first to admit that, while the cricket part of his travels are easiest to recollect, they’re not always the most memorable. He was most struck by the people of South Africa – a country that had its own share of turmoil – not dissimilar from what was unfolding at home, and gaped wide-eyed at the “sheer beauty of a place like Queenstown in New Zealand”.
A cerebral cricketer, Sangakkara recalls the sense of adventure that going on tour represented when he was a young man. “When you’re at the start of your career, any tour is a good tour. You’re hungry to do well overseas and to make your mark so each tour was a challenge and each was about achieving a set of goals relating to personal performance,” he says. “After becoming a regular you slowly understand how important it is to relax, enjoy the country you’re in and take your mind off the game in a positive way.”
Just as Sangakkara tried to make a mark in as many alien conditions as possible, he tried to enjoy the ride. One way to do this was through local cuisine. But it wasn’t long before he was going back to the same places over and over again – Test cricket is played in 10 countries at best and each have their traditional venues. It wasn’t long before the wide-eyed traveller was beaten out of Sangakkara. “The touring is great, but the routine sometimes is frustrating,” he says, ever the master of understatement. “The packing and unpacking, the constant check-in and check-out of hotels, it gets you down.”
From a young dasher making his way in cricket, life changed for Sangakkara. Instead of being a talented son he became a husband, lord of his manor, and his outlook reflected this. “My life on tour is definitely not unreal,” he says. “I still have to pay my bills and take care of my family, and get the plumbing or roof fixed while on tour. Life doesn’t stop when you tour. It follows you. I think that is healthy. You’re never out of touch or in a bubble as such. You stay connected to your home and family and the mundane realities of everyday life. It’s a constant reminder of why you play the game and of what and who are depending on your abilities.”
While he understands the day-to-day reality, Sangakkara is not insensitive. “I always miss home and since I got married it has been great to have Yehali on tour whenever possible. The constant thing you miss is that: family and home. When you’re a father it becomes even tougher and it’s frustrating to know that you might miss an important event in your child’s growth,” says the father of twins. “There are so many things that you would want to witness and be a part of. Having families on tour is something I always fight for and emphasise.”
And it’s not lost on Sangakkara that, while his every cricketing deed is properly documented, his wife’s life work often goes uncounted. “My wife has, of course, made huge sacrifices. Although cricket gives us a very good lifestyle, she has to shoulder the responsibility of running the house by herself while taking care of two children,” says Sangakkara. “Not being able to contact me all the time, sometimes not knowing the ground situation, as was the case after the shooting in Pakistan, and the constant uncertainty of schedules so she can’t plan too far ahead or set things down definitely. It is not easy, but having a partner who can cope and manage sure does make life a lot easier on tour.”
Before he sounds ungrateful, Sangakkara is keen to acknowledge that he leads a life that would be the envy of the majority of his countrymen. But few know of the toll a life on the road takes. “Travelling business class, staying in five-star hotels and getting VIP treatment does feel nice. But you have to be careful not to take it for granted as reality. They are part of life in the spotlight but that only lasts for so long,” he says. “What you do on the field counts, and your ability and performance makes for the perks of being an accomplished cricketer. The pressures and the routines and the separation from family take a toll, but the cricket is what keeps me coming back. When I retire I won’t miss being on the road, but I will miss the cricket and a dressing-room full of friends.”
Before you think every international cricketer is as well-adjusted, normal and even as self-aware as Kartik, Gambhir or Sangakkara, understand that they’re a minority. It’s worth considering how escapist the life of a high-profile star is in this day and age. Paddy Upton – who wears many hats at all times but is currently high performance manager with Cricket South Africa and head coach of the Rajasthan Royals – has spent an inquisitive lifetime searching for answers. Upton, who played first-class cricket for Western Province as a left-hand bat himself, was the first full-time trainer with an international team, having worked with Hansie Cronje’s side. But he soon realised there was more to life. He equipped himself with two Masters degrees, one in Sports Science and another in Executive Coaching, mentored by Professor Tim Noakes, the granddaddy of mental conditioning.
Upton’s years with the Indian team, which saw them rise to the top of the Test rankings and win a World Cup, were marked by an emphasis on players pursuing happiness rather than excellence, in the firm belief that without the former, the latter was impossible. But Upton, who asks more questions than the average seven-year-old, also got a first-hand glimpse of what life was like for these elite cricketers. “As cricket becomes part of the entertainment industry, cricketers transform into entertainers. Their celebrity status is increasing as they find themselves on billboards, splattered across the pages of glossy magazines and seated in fancy sports cars. In India one finds players who have not yet made their international team with their faces plastered around shopping malls, airport terminals and on road-side billboards,” he wrote in a cautionary piece on his personal blog that ought to be compulsory reading for all young cricketers. “Models, actors, musicians and business high-fliers have long known [this] world of stardom. Cricketers across the world are now being invited to this party of glitz and glamour. It’s a fun world, people love to follow stars, to read about them, talk about them, idolise them. It’s entertaining. And it’s great for the star, it’s alluring, fun, colourful, challenging, cut-throat, financially rewarding and lots more. Winners win and losers lose. It’s all but mundane. Like with any good party, a potential hangover awaits the unwary. Most may deny it, but the reality is that a number of cricketers past have succumbed to the hangover of scandal, emptiness, despair, divorce and even suicide. Without change, the hangover is likely to become more widespread.”
Upton is intelligent to the point of being intimidating, and emotionally so aware of the world around him that you wonder if there’s any point interviewing him, as he’s already several steps ahead of the game when you ask him a question. But to deal with him is unfailingly educational because you may not necessarily get answers to the questions you asked but you’ll end up knowing more about yourself than when you started. “Cricketers today enjoy more money, more glitz, more glamour and more exposure than ever before. It’s fun, but are they sufficiently prepared for what may lurk in the shadows of this limelight?” asks Upton rhetorically. “The obvious shadows, long known to those in positions of prominence, are often brought to us by the media. A scuffle in a night club, driving over the alcohol limit, sexual indiscretions, dodgy business liaisons, drug abuse, excessive boozing, the ‘honey pot’ and match-fixing are commonly reported traps,” he explains. “These shadows are trawled by media vultures stooping to create or scrape up some dirt on players to increase their media rankings. Some celebrities feel they are above the law, invincible and sometimes immortal, which provides fertile ground for these incidents, many of which end up being excused by an admiring policeman, traffic officer or lawyer.”
If Upton’s cautionary words sound excessively negative, it’s only because the facts back him up. In 2013, cricket has a higher suicide rate than any other sport. The divorce rate among cricketers is only bettered by Hollywood. There might be more money, fame and prestige on offer, but the travelling cricketer is more vulnerable than ever before. “As cricket graduates further into the entertainment industry, unfortunately these statistics are likely to increase,” says Upton. “The more a cricketer buys into the glitz and glamour in his playing days, the more he loses touch with who he authentically is, the more he looks for happiness ‘out there’, the more he surrounds himself with false friends, the fewer genuine relationships he has, the more the likelihood of suffering this unfortunate hangover.”
If this is the psychological landscape of the cricketer today, it was not always so. To read the autobiography of the man widely acknowledged as the best cricketer of all time is to take a trip so far down memory lane that it reads like fiction. Sir Garfield St Auburn Sobers is revered but when you read some parts of his book, he comes across as a lovable rogue from Barbados who was blessed with extraordinary abilities. “I have always been a free spirit and maybe not always the conventional professional cricketer. I like to gamble, I certainly enjoy a drink and I never objected to a late night out and the company of a pretty woman,” wrote Sobers, who goes on to talk about a Test in England in 1973 towards the end of his career.
Returning to his hotel at the end of a bender that even the wildest modern cricketer would not attempt, Sobers was accosted by Reg Scarlett, the former Jamaica and West Indies spinner who was living in London at the time. Scarlett fancied a few more drinks and Sobers did not disappoint. The pair adjourned to Clarendon Court where the West Indies team was staying and made themselves comfortable at the bar. “As morning dawned, I had a cold shower to wake me up and joined the rest of the team for the short journey to the ground. There was no chance of a rest in the massage room this time because I was 26 not out overnight, batting with Rohan Kanhai, and due to take the first over against England’s quick opening bowler, Bob Willis,” wrote Sobers. “This was a vital day and I thought I should change my approach – I played forward and missed the first five balls and Willis was glaring at me down the pitch as though he could throttle me. I imagined I could hear the fellows up on the balcony laughing because they knew that I had not been to bed and had a fair idea of exactly what was happening out there in the middle. The sixth ball hit the middle of the bat and I began to settle, but when I reached the 70s the alcohol started to work on me and I desperately wanted to go to the toilet. However, it was going so well and I did not want to break my concentration, so I decided to hold on.”
Sobers held on, but as soon as he reached three figures he begged the umpire to give him a short break to get back to the dressing-room and flush the previous night’s grog out of his system. Sprinting off the field, Sobers was greeted by Kanhai in the dressing-room, and his words best describe what followed. “‘Captain,’ said Kanhai — he still called me that out of habit — ‘what’s wrong with you?’ ‘Skipper,’ I replied, ‘boy, my stomach is giving me hell. The only thing that’ll help me now is a port and brandy mixed.’ He called for the drink and I swallowed it quickly. He took one look at me and shouted: ‘Bring the captain another brandy and port — but make it a big one this time.’ I liked the idea. ‘No problem,’ I said and drank that down as well. Suddenly my stomach felt good and I didn’t even need to find the toilet.” In his last match in England, at the cathedral of cricket, Sobers made an even 150 not out in West Indies’ 652 for 8 declared as England lost by an innings and 226 runs.
Jump-cut 40 years and you’ll find cricket at a crossroads where players indulge themselves off the field but without the checks and balances that allowed Sobers to lead a normal life. Drinks are still consumed in vast quantities, but either behind closed doors or in the company of other celebrities from different walks of life whose image cannot afford to be dented. It’s not that there isn’t a Sobers in our midst, but rather that such a personality is an object of scorn rather than wonderment.
To be a part of the global cricket circus in 2013 is to concede that you are part of a life so unreal that a rabbit from Alice in Wonderland would not bat an eyelid or twitch a long ear at your existence. Not that long ago, a world-weary, cynical cricket journalist, who banged out pedestrian prose at will for his newspaper, was moved to verse in the most unlikely of places:
Corridor of uncertainty
It used to be only a few inches wide,
just outside a batsman’s off stump.
It used to be a bowler’s principal aim,
just nag away and wait for a mistake.
It used to be every left-hander’s weakness,
just leave the ball or play it?
It used to be the slip cordon’s ally,
just the right line for a nibble.
It used to be cricket’s basic principle,
the corridor of uncertainty.
Today, it’s wider than a pitch,
and sits in the middle of the desert.
Today, it’s that place you can’t avoid,
on any cricketing voyage.
Today, it’s bright and cheery in the night,
keeping people constantly on the move.
Today, it’s where you meet strangers,
former players, officials, friends in cricket.
Today, it’s the Dubai International Airport,
cricket’s new corridor of uncertainty.
If you’ve ever spent an ungodly hour in that airport, you’ll relate to those words. If you haven’t, you’ve just been given a window into another world, where cricket and travel have become unenthusiastic yet willing bedfellows. If you’re a cricketer worth your salt in the modern era, you’re also a world traveller. It should be a matter of much fun how the world has opened itself to the average yet successful cricketer. But just as only those in a tunnel know the true value of the light that beckons, cricket and cricketers are basking in a sunshine that is all too often followed by a depressing dusk.
This appeared in the first issue of the Nightwatchman. You can buy all the copies here.