When you were a kid, what did you want to be? I'm sure there are some of us who wanted to be writers, but maybe that came later. It did for me. When I was a boy I wanted to be a professional cricketer. I wanted to travel the world, stay in nice hotels, visit exotic places, and get paid for playing cricket. What better life could there be? I was a very talented schoolboy cricketer and for a short period in my teens it looked like playing cricket for a living might be a possibility. Then I lost my love for the game, lost some form, other 'distractions' came along - girls, pubs - and the moment passed. As compensation, when I became a journalist, I tried my hand at cricket writing. It never matched up to playing though, and the press boxes were mostly populated by stale, bitter old men and not the Wildean wits of my imagination, so that dream died too (though I did write a cricket book, my first book, in which I got to interview Geoff Boycott, David Gower and Richie Benaud, and a host of other childhood heroes, and got an agent, which in turn led me to where I am today, so it was worth it...)
Why do I mention all of this? Because deep down, I still think that playing cricket for a living is the best job a man could possibly do. The Cricket World Cup has been taking place for the past six weeks - though it has often felt like six years - and it's been very difficult to get work done, or rather, very easy to avoid working citing the cricket as an excuse, particularly on days when England have played. I watch and I think about how I might have played that ball, or whether I would have taken that catch, and feel a twinge of envy and regret that I didn't knuckle down, put the girls and boozers on hold for a few more years, and dedicate my life to the game. I would never have played for England, but I coulda been a contender etc....
But then I remembered why the those distractions became so appealing, and why I lost my desire to play. I'd spent all my teenage years playing, every weekend in the summer in matches, during the winter practicing indoors two or three times a week; during the school holidays I played or practiced most days of the week. The fact is I got bored. Playing cricket full time would have soon palled.
Then yesterday came the news that Michael Yardy, a utility player in the England World Cup squad, had been sent home suffering from depression. Apparently he's been fighting his illness for a while, and the relentless gradgrind of international cricket - he had been on the road for five or six months - had become too much. Suffering from depression, away from your wife and family for months at a time, the life of a professional sportsman soon loses lustre; the hotel rooms may be nice but the they're still hotel rooms and the walls still close in. Yardy isn't the first English cricketer to suffer from depression. Marcus Trescothick, a far more talented player, effectively quit international cricket after a series of breakdowns, the last time on a tour to Australia. He has written honestly and eloquently about his illness, shining some much needed light on depression and lifting much of the stigma, though there are still those misguided souls who bluster and wonder how pampered sportsmen can possibly get depressed, unaware that it's an illness that strikes arbitrarily, regardless of profession or wealth or social class.
Scratch the surface though, and it becomes clear that of all sportsmen and women, cricketers seem to suffer most from depression.The cricket journalist and historian David Frith once wrote a book about the phenomena, Silence of the Heart, which discovered that English cricket players are twice as more likely to commit suicide than the average male. 'Cricket has this dreadful, hidden burden,' Frith once said. 'It must now answer the very serious question of whether it gradually transforms unwary cricket-loving boys into brooding, insecure and ultimately self-destructive men.'
It's not confined to England either. Frith found that in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia the number of cricketers who take their own lives is even higher when compared to non-cricket playing males.
Of course, it's not cricket which causes people to commit suicide. People kill themselves for reasons that are unique to themselves and their pasts. Yet it seems foolish to ignore that fact that more cricketers are prone to this, and not just the ones who travel the world, spending months away from their loved ones, in the glare of the media spotlight, or stuck in lonely hotel rooms Skyping their friends and family. It affects those who play the circuit in their home country, which involves a fair amount of travel and time away, but not months.
I look back to my playing days (I say looking back, I'm planning on coming out of retirement this summer, the dream never really dies) and I can see what Frith means. Cricket is essentially an individual game dressed up as a team sport. The main action is the duel between bowler and batsman. Once the batsman is out, through a daft shot, good bowling or a slice of bad luck, then that's it for him for a fair while. This isn't baseball where you'll be up again in a couple of innings time. A batsman has to sit for days, possibly weeks, waiting for another chance, the pressure building. Even when fielding you can bet he'll be mulling over his dismissal, thinking about his approach next time he bats. By the time he gets out to the middle again he might be so keyed up and tense he is incapable of doing well. So, he gets out, and then broods on his dismissal for more days, the cycle ever worsening. Some people are very good at putting failure out of their minds, of attributing it to bad luck, and looking forward to 'next time' and a chance to put it right. The more sensitive, intense soul begins to fear the next time because it could mean more failure, which breeds more brooding, and more sleepless nights. It's easy to see, if other things in your life were going badly, how such a cycle would intensify depression.
Many of the suicides Frith talks about involve ex-players, and cricket is not alone among sports in this regard. Life on civvy street, having been used to playing in front of large crowds and being feted, swapping the excitement and the uncertainty for the prosaic and mundane, can be demoralising, and players often end up prostituting their name to make money, looking with envy on those who still play. Yet it doesn't explain everything, and how cricket, the sport with the genteel, civilized reputation, hides such a dark heart.