Jesse Ryder, the talented but troubled New Zealand batsman, may have helped cricket break new ground. He has come to play for Pune Warriors in the ongoing DLF Indian Premier League (IPL) accompanied by his own clinical psychologist, Karen Nimmo, and manager, Aaron Klee.
While personal support staff—including mind and body experts—are not unknown in some other sports (tennis, basketball, for example), this is perhaps the first time a cricketer has deployed such help—and during a tournament, not in the off-season.
Testing times: Kiwi batsman Jesse Ryder plays for Pune Warriors. By Aijaz Rahi/AP
It would be pertinent at this point to understand the whys and wherefores of this story. Ryder has had alcohol-related problems since he appeared on the international scene a few years ago. He has been in rehabilitation a few times, but every time it appeared he had kicked the habit, he would suffer a relapse.
Only recently—during the home series against South Africa —he lost his place in the New Zealand team for breaking curfew timings and getting involved in a fracas in a pub along with promising young teammate Doug Bracewell. While Bracewell got off with a reprimand, Ryder lost his place in the side and announced that he would take an indefinite break from the game.
It appeared then that he would be lost to cricket itself. Within his country’s cricket establishment, he was running out of sympathy. Even coach John Wright, otherwise a hugely patient man and amiable bloke —not to mention a Ryder fan—was beginning to give up on him.
The IPL has come as a lifeline, allowing Ryder not just the opportunity to play competitive cricket, but also prove to New Zealand Cricket (formerly the New Zealand Cricket Board) that he is serious about conquering his addiction. Whatever the reservations about Twenty20 cricket—and especially the IPL—it is a big stage for cricketers to show to selectors and administrators everywhere that they are still in the game, so to speak.
The clinical psychologist and manager, I understand, have come to India at Ryder’s cost and will work in conjunction with the Pune Warriors franchise. A “support structure”, according to Nimmo, has been put in place for Ryder along with the team’s management—coach, support staff and players—to help the Kiwi batsman with his predicament and actualize his potential.
As mentioned earlier, while such arrangements are not uncommon in individual sports, they are rare in team sports and unheard of in this game. This is not to say that cricketers don’t need psychological help. The case of Marcus Trescothick, who gave up his career with England because of depression, is only too well-known.
But Ryder’s participation in the IPL is a fascinating development in cricket. There are two aspects to it which I find particularly relevant going ahead. First, the sport now provides enough money for players to hire their own “specialist” services and support. Second, thanks to IPL and the high stakes on offer, the competition between players is going to be so intense that such support may become commonplace.
“Emotional management”, to use jargon from sports psychology, is going to be crucial as cricket gets more frenetic thanks to the growth of Twenty20 leagues and the multimillion-dollar stakes that players will fight for, not to mention fame and adulation.
It is now a truism of sports psychology that a sportsperson whose emotional stability is suspect is more than likely to lose the game; another who has the mental flexibility to respond to changes and challenges with greater balance is likely to win the day.
Till now, conventional support systems like family, captain, coach, cricket establishment seemed to be good enough to deal with a player’s mistakes, mishaps, failures, successes, setbacks and what have you. There was hardly need for ultra-specialists to help a player reach peak performance. The IPL has changed much of that already.
Most teams now have such specialists as part of their entourage. Coaching is fragmented into particular skills, with a different person heading each aspect, batting, bowling and fielding. There are physical fitness and nutrition experts. Indeed, the entire support staff may outnumber the playing squad.
The Jesse Ryder case has added a different and dramatic dimension to this. After the coming of Twenty20 and the IPL, that cricket is no longer the game it used to be, is true in more ways than one.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org