Losing a parent at the age of 40+ was a devastating experience for me. This is why when I read that Pakistan’s 16 year old cricket star lost his mother last week whilst he was on tour with the team in Australia, touched a raw nerve somewhere. It was reported Naseem spoke with his family and decided to stay back with the team. He missed participating in his mother’s funeral rites.
It befuddled me to think, how many times he must have fought back tears, how many must he have shed, how did he walk out on to the field the next day with so many cameras on him, what was he thinking of when he was running up to bowl his first bouncer? Had he numbed his brain? Was he even fully aware of the magnanimity of his loss, or he was trying his best to drive it from his mind whilst he performed the best he could – all that pressure and not even 2 decades into this world?
In Pakistan, a person is not eligible for an ID card till he/she turns 18. According to this logic, a 16 year is a child by all definitions.
Both the Australian and Pakistani cricket teams wore black arm bands as a mark of condolence for Naseem in the next match.
This week, Naseem Shah was one of only 9 cricketers who made his test debut against an international side at the tender age of 16. He has the nation’s prayers and support behind him, as one twitter follower posted:
“Naseem Shah was hugged by Wasim Akram this morning, he was given a debut cap by his hero WAQAR YOUNIS. Now, standing tall in Gabba with the bat. Uff what a day for a 16-year-old boy from Lower Dir. (He shed more tears in last 10 days than in his whole life). dream debut.” @UmarFarooqKalson
But what tugged at my heart strings was:
What will this young boy do when he goes back home? How will he deal with the loss of his mother and not being able to participate in her funeral rites?
Naseem Shah is a talented cricketer, a superb bowler, a jackpot of talent and worth so much more to the Pakistani team – but keeping that worth in mind, why did we not, as cricket fans and supporters, as PCB board members, as former cricketing stars, feel the need to mentor Naseem and allow him time off? Even if the boy did not want to go home, there are many questions we need to ask ourselves as a society:
1. Have we become selfish as a nation?
We have so few moments to celebrate that we grab what we can, without thinking of the spillover effect, the consequences, the price to individuals who give up everything to give us our dream. While we celebrate his ‘speed’ performance, (and it was mind boggling speed), have we forgotten that he is still a child, grieving for a parent? If anyone will tell me that THIS is what he wants to do, and THIS is how he wants to grieve, I will retort: yes, some people find peace in performance, and this is their way to grieve, but, he still needed a family member, a mentor, a mental health expert by his side to tide him over this very rough time. So that he continues to give his best, emotionally and physically.
Has Naseem Shah been offered any emotional/psychological therapy to tide him through this tough time? 16 years is a very tender age. What the mind experiences now can create a fallback many years later in life as well. Naseem Shah and many other young cricketers will grow up, not in school and college, but touring the world with the Pakistan Cricket team. hence, the Board owes him. They must treat him like family, and not just as an investment in Pakistan Cricket!
Where we employ high profile coaches, and implement grueling training programs and ‘no biryani’ diets on our players, should we not employ a mental health coach? Someone who works with the players to strengthen them mentally and emotionally. Not just Naseem Shah, but all Pakistani players will benefit from this mentor-ship. If we can employ mental health councilors in schools, these are young players, living away from home, many, perhaps for the first time, spending months in a different culture, and under pressure to perform. That pressure means they have to prove to their family they can do it, they have to prove to the PCB they can do it, they have to prove to the world they can do it, and they have to prove to themselves that they can do it. Do what? – Secure a permanent place in the Pakistan cricket team of course! And that brings me to my next point.
3. A Place in the Team!
What makes a 16 year old decide not to attend his mother’s funeral and what kind of nation feels it’s okay?
Are our cricketers so insecure about a future place in the team that Naseem felt: “If I miss out now, I might never get this chance?”
How can a player perform with that kind of pressure? And this is not just from the Board but also from us, the cricket fans. If experienced players like Sarfraz Ahmed had to face a furious crowd, name calling, hysterical back lash from fans as well as uncertainty about his place in the team, (or as captain), how will a 16 year old respond to such criticism? Naseem is young, time is on his side and so is skill, but this is the time players like him and others need mentor-ship and coping skills. We need to invest in our players, genuinely invest in them, as human beings and not just as match winning machines for the country.
Could we not have flown Naseem Shah home for a week and brought him back to Australia? That one week would have given him time to grieve,to get closure, and be with his family, as long as he knew he had a secure place in the team. Was that option even offered to him?
I cannot even imagine how much he will dread going back home once the tour is done? I’m not even going to go through the stream of emotions that will overwhelm him and his family.
We need to understand that our youth are the future of the nation. And their mental well being is our responsibility.
Long term planning is a must. Otherwise we will end up losing some of our best players to burn out, erratic performance and lack of focus. Promising young boys like Naseem Shah might not be able to establish a career in cricket, because we are looking for short term gains.
All this, because we did not care enough about the human being we were investing in, just the numbers. With the #mentalhealth hashtag trending now more than ever before, are we going to ignore the need for counselling to our sportsmen till we have to deal with a catastrophe?