Selection of Will Pucovski: a triumph from the unlikeliest of sources

Why the selection of Will Pucovski is a step in the right direction for mental health in sport

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Ball being delivered at the Gabba in Brisbane
Source - Wikimedia Commons

It’s fair to say that Australian cricket is experiencing one of its more turbulent periods, a series of fallouts and fracas, bans and bust-ups like those normally reserved for the game on these shores. When Ed Smith announced an unchanged England squad for the upcoming tour of the West Indies, it was a reflection of the equanimity of the current side; Australian test selection has never felt so quite so contrived and impulsive, and most of the absorbing plot lines centre perpetually around the characters who instead will not take the field, or those that are simply banned from doing so, but nonetheless so self-assured of their return come March anyway.

The antithesis of a well-run sporting board, Cricket Australia has navigated the fallout from the ball tampering crisis like a proud admiral continuing his voyage despite the ravaged sails but charting his course straight into the heart of the Bermuda triangle. The new-look power dynamic of Justin Langer and Tim Paine are desperately attempting to re-write years of unfettered aggression and withering mental disintegration with their personal flavour of elite mateship and earnest stump-mic-ship, but occasionally the mask slips, and the brash interventions of Michael Clarke, the toying with Glenn Maxwell, the ceaseless booing of Mitchell Marsh in the MCG at Christmas, and even the apathy towards a bloated Big Bash point to a more permanent rupture through the heart of the game.

There have been two recent interviews in particular that stand out, the juxtaposition between making it tempting to cast the two as potential precursors for the culture Australian cricket ultimately wishes to adopt and mould: a cricketing Bandersnatch decision but with real-world ramifications.

The first stars Cameron Bancroft, fresh from exile and scoring sizeable runs back for the Perth Scorchers. Interviewed by Adam Gilchrist, a fellow Western Australian, Bancroft discusses the saga, revealing his pride in being held accountable in the immediate aftermath and a fascination at the public clamor for every forensic detail. What becomes apparent is that Bancroft does not understand the ugly winning culture that his comparably minor actions willingly betrayed in the public eye, or the desperate need for change that would be directly at odds with his own immediate re-installation.

Or, perhaps more appositely, he does not want to understand: he is remorseful, but only for his dastardly naivety, not for the brazen mentality that bred the very existence of the sandpaper in the first place. It is an attitude underlined by his very public cravings to open the batting with David Warner once more; a re-coupling of the duo would smack of superficial rather than systemic lessons learnt. Bancroft might well be the fall guy, but he is all too happy to play the role.

Which brings us to the second interview: a genuinely refreshing and progressive discussion from… hang on… a young Australian cricketer, about… something non-yellow, non-abrasive, and on a topic of magnitude that has plagued so many in the past, none of whom have found quite the same courage nor insightful articulacy to front up to their demons so willingly, never mind in the embryonic phase of a career, at a time of national tumult.

Will Pucovski was 20 years and 256 days old when he scored 243 in a Sheffield Shield match for Victoria at the WACA, earmarking his huge potential; he has played just one match since but is in line to make an Australian test debut before the age of 21, less than 100 days older in number but a whole lot more in character and wisdom.

Resuming on 64* overnight, Pucovski arrived at the ground the following morning for a routine net, but things were so amiss that he felt compelled to confront the issue and pulled his coach aside. After compiling the mammoth innings, the right-hander was forced to leave the field of play during day the Western Australian reply: post-match it was announced he would be taking an indefinite break from cricket due to a mental-health related issue.

For a player who usually recalls his stroke-making “vividly”, the innings that inducted him into the pantheon of greats – Bradman, Ponting, Ian Chappell – to register a double-century at such a young age is much of a blur, the situation a “cheat code” out in the middle, but a crippling vice in the field, alone in his own thoughts and intensely fearful of the ball arriving  in case his team-mates were let down. It is a neat encapsulation of this selfless character, intent on offering true transparency, not for himself, but for the benefit of others.

Speaking on Fox Sports’ Follow-On podcast for the first time, Pucovski said he aimed to lift the “dark cloud” that had been cast over his sudden sabbatical: to get it all out into the open and positively channel his own challenges and coping mechanisms to help the litany of others who deal with the same issues, too often too privately.

The discussion is admirable, the individual even more impressive, and the widespread reaction, although I say this tentatively, suggests that the taboo over mental health in sport is being broken down willingly. Mental health issues are indelible and widespread throughout myriad frontiers in life, but for so long the held perception of sports stars has been synonymous with strength, endurance, resilience; their image has been of deities who are immune to the afflictions of others. Depression is being debunked and there is a clear understanding that accepting, and battling ‘weakness’ is a supreme show of strength in itself.

Pucovski is an unknowing trailblazer in that regard. That his on-field masterclass coincided with an off-field nadir may have been difficult to reconcile, not least to himself, and taking time away from the game to understand his own condition and seek out specialists such as a mindfulness coach was the paramount concern. His inclination to detail the process so readily is a breath of fresh air, and the youthful nonchalance through which he conveys the battle is hopefully a lead that many others can follow.

Clearly, his immediate absence thereafter only serves to accentuate the incredible character shown to compile the mammoth score. When you consider the potential predisposition to developing depression that his string of cricketing concussions gave him, the respect heightens. It would be oh so easy for Pucovski to bite the hand that feeds him, to be angry at Sean Abbott’s bouncer and develop a distaste for the game on the back of rotten luck; instead, he embraces the sport that has given him a fledgling career but also affected his mental state. Previously it may have been highly embarrassing to admit in the public eye, too caught up in the notion of providing the opposition a stick with which to beat, to pick at the frayed edges as David Warner launched into Jonathan Trott down under in 2014. As a generation though, maybe we are beginning to see honesty and openness as the virtues a steely sheen may once have been.

As the excellent Sky Sports series ‘Mind Games’ showed this summer, cricket is now a pursuit at the forefront of treating the mental side of the game with the same forensic detail as extensive sport science teams view the physical aspect. Figures such as Andrew Flintoff and Marcus Trescothick have been excellent ambassadors and key figures in that development as they have stepped away from the intensity and rigors of the international game.

Trescothick initially found it difficult to speak his mind, and perhaps the perceived ignominy of leaving two England tours as an already entrenched member of the squad naturally hindered his clarity, the spotlight that bit brighter. In that sense, it could be a blessing in disguise that Pucovski has stood up to his mind so young.

Still, it feels incongruous that such a triumph has come from the unlikeliest of sources. Andy Murray has always said that his Wimbledon tears were a rare moment he let “the mask slip”, but also the first time he felt truly respected for his endeavours; with Pucovski, it feels like there is no mask: staring Australian cricket right in the face is a vision of how they should want to play the game, rid of toxic masculinity and masquerading as macho. Allowed to flourish, Will Pucovski can be a bellwether for their future.

Timing has been key for both of each interview’s protagonists, but only once has it been employed with good intention. It was hardly a coincidence that news of Jonny Bairstow’s headbutt filtered into consciousness as the self-titled heaviest head in the locker-room cruised to a red-ink score and a maiden 10-wicket Ashes victory, smug and sanctimonious. It is likely no coincidence either that the day after the Follow-On podcast aired, Pucovski was named in the Australian test squad.

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