Pucovski withdraws from Test reckoning citing mental health issues

Will Pucovski pulls through square leg Getty Images

Selection chairman Trevor Hohns believes the young Victorian batsman Will Pucovski's self-aware decision to withdraw from Australia's reckoning for the first Test of the summer against Pakistan should be a source of praise rather than penalty, as Cricket Australia works to get to grips with the burgeoning issue of mental health.

Pucovski informed Australia A team management he was struggling on Tuesday evening in Perth, the day the hosts collapsed in their first innings to Pakistan in what had been widely billed as a batting trial. Having previously taken two breaks to deal with his mental health last summer, once when representing Victoria and then during the Canberra Test against Sri Lanka where he was a non-playing member of the squad, Pucovski joined Glenn Maxwell and Nic Maddinson as players taking mental health leave, although each in their own unique circumstances.

Hohns, who alongside the national coach Justin Langer was left to recall Cameron Bancroft to fill out seven batting positions in the squad, was adamant that Pucovski's continuing management of mental health difficulties would not rule him out of further selection opportunities, while also remarking admiringly of the courage and openness on display.

"It is a very unfortunate happening for him once again, he is a great player," Hohns said. "He is going to be a very, very good player but, obviously, the timing wasn't quite right for him at the moment. He made the call to make himself unavailable.

"I am not qualified to talk too much about mental health but it is a subject that is coming to the fore more and more - not just in our sport but in other sports and in life in general. I think we should be quite proud and pleased our players in our sport are comfortable coming out and talking about it."

ALSO READ: A lot to learn about mental health issues - Cricket Australia's Ben Oliver

They were sentiments echoed by captain Tim Paine. "He's a great young kid and it's sad to see him going through this. We know how talented he is. I think making the right decision to step away and take care of himself and get himself healthy and in the right state of mind is going to be important because we think he is someone who has got a huge Test future.

"First and foremost, we want Will to be a happy young man. Sometimes we forget that he is still a kid. He has got a lot of pressure put on him from outside sources and expectation. Hopefully he's in a position in the next few years to fulfil that potential that he has got. The first priority for us and for Will is his mental well-being."

Ben Oliver, CA's head of national teams, described the process by which Pucovski came to withdraw, before being seen chatting casually with Langer in Perth towards the end of the Australia A game - a moment many interpreted to be a conversation about his imminent Test selection, when it was in fact quite the opposite.

"During the course of the Australia A game, Will presented to team management and the national selectors that he was experiencing some challenges and ultimately sought counsel on that through our and his support network, before then determining that it's best for him at this point in time not to be considered for Test selection," Oliver told SEN Radio. "We've worked with him closely over the last 24 hours to help support him through that.

"In the short term the absolute priority is Will as a human being and to give him the time and the space and the expert support he needs to focus on his health and well-being at the current moment. Cricket will come next and we'll deal with that when the time's right. But as it currently stands, the right thing for Will is to focus on his own health and well-being and we'll support him through that.

"We're broadly aware of this issue in society and while we never want to see anyone suffering or going through challenges in the way our three players have expressed recently, I think the positive we can take from this is that we're able to increase awareness around the challenges that exist with the mental health and well-being area, and acknowledge that it's not a sport thing, not a cricket thing, it's a society thing. There's much to be learned about that, and there's much to be done to continue to support people as they go through these challenges."

An unrelenting schedule and an ever faster cycle of public scrutiny on players, through social as well as traditional media, were all compounding factors in Oliver's eyes, having commenced in his role during this year's Ashes series in England. "Having been involved in the game at different levels for a long time, one aspect I hadn't been involved in to a close degree was international cricket, and one of the early observations I've had in the role is the intense scrutiny and the relentless schedule that exists around cricket," he said.

"From that perspective there is an absolute need for us to invest time, energy, resources into understanding the challenges that exist for players and staff around mental health in that context, and making sure we do everything we can. Mental health is one of the factors that do need to be considered. I think it's also part of a broader recognition that we're playing a lot of cricket these days and we have more access to detailed information, analysis and insight than we've ever had before, so selection is absolutely an art and a science, and we're trying to understand how we can systemise that further, to really enhance the selection process."

After a comfortable victory for New South Wales over Western Australia at the SCG, Mitchell Starc pointed out issues around the "pretty ridiculous" schedule and travel and increasing awareness of mental health but also lauded the fact that Pucovski, Maddinson and Maxwell had all chosen to act rather than letting issues fester beyond their control.

"It raises a few questions," Starc said. "It's very positive that these guys can come out with how they are travelling and feeling. It's concerning that you've got three guys who have taken themselves out of cricket for a period of time due to mental health. It's Movember as well, so it heightens the awareness around it. It's about making sure these guys are well supported, which I'm sure they will be. Three guys who have gone through it are very good people and cricketers and hopefully we see them come back sooner rather than later.

"There's a number of things. There's the pressure around cricket, the schedules are pretty ridiculous these days. I haven't seen those guys in person so don't know exactly what they are going through but it's quite public as well. The positive thing is that the guys are feeling more comfortable about being open and honest with how they are feeling whereas in the past they might have just tried to kick on and get through things and it could have built up to be something worse."