Friday, March 25, 2011

Cricket and the Black Dog

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.


Dan - Friday


  1. Dan, I too played decent cricket when I was young - represented SA Universities - but never good enough to be a Springbok. However, cricket then, at the top level was very different from what it is today.Then cricket was a summer sport, often played by amateurs, with an occasional overseas tour to an area in a different hemisphere. Today cricket, and all other professional sports, are played at full pressure all year round. I think that is what is causing the players to wilt. And, frankly, I find little passion in watching most internationals because there is just too much. The World Cup is different and it has provided a much needed distraction as I recover from my surgery. Yesterday my health improved even more as India beat the Aussies. (Why is it that nobody outside supports the Aussies?). Good luck for your comeback! I look forward to hearing stirring tales of your prowess and successes.

  2. Oh yes. I played frequently against Geoff Boycott, who used to winter is South Africa. He was not well liked because he took everything so seriously. Even when a match was essentially over, he batted as though the Ashes were in contention. I do not recall ever seeing him smile! However, I do think he is a good commentator, bringing his experience to the listening masses.

  3. Stan, too right about the itinerary. Some of the England players and staff have spent three nights at home since last October. Many have young families. Must be torture. Glad to see the Aussies losing is aiding your convalescence. I think we all hate them because for so many years they swaggered around beating us all up like charmless playground bullies. They used to beat people with such ruthless, almost teutonic efficiency.

    Ah Geoffrey - he is not a particularly nice man, and outside the commentary box isn't liked at all. Where there is peace, he will bring dischord. He has no empathy and little humour. He said some rather nasty things about Yardy's illness: in a nutshell, he was depressed because he wasn't very good! I could tell you some more Boycott stories, good and bad. You must let me know when you;re next over this part of the world so we can get some tickets, sit in the sun (!) and swap tall tales! Beer's on me.


  4. I can't think of a sport in the US that is so inhumane. Does Canada have cricket?

    Here the sports, at least on the professional level, do have seasons. Baseball is the longest but, as you say, everyone gets their chance at bat on a predictable cycle. Then, when they are not at bat, they are on the field, running, jumping, sliding, banging into walls.

    Hockey and basketball are intensely active games. In hockey offense and defense swap off so their is some off-ice time during the games and their is, of course, the penalty box. It isn't a good game unless the gloves come off and there is a fight. American football, I now know to qualify it, is the only sport in which four 15-minute periods can last three yours. Most of it is a game of inches except when it is a game of men running madly down a field, dodging other behemoths who want to take them down. In football, the only thing that is beautiful is the passing done by the quarterback or, in the case of the New England Patriots, the quarterback (Tom Brady now married to Gisele Bundchen).

    About forty years ago, a teenager from Canada came to Boston to play hockey for the Bruins. Bobby Orr was the best the game had seen in a long time. He made is seem effortless and every parent in the northern part of the US figured they could turn their sons into Bobby Orr if they started them playing at age 4 and had them in skating rinks at 5:00 am.

    Orr had nothing to do with the insanity. Parents didn't consider such a thing as talent and grace on the ice as necessary to success. Orr had to retire before he was thirty because his knees were destroyed. He stayed in Massachusetts, married, and had sons, none of whom play hockey or were dragged to hockey rinks before the sun came up.

    Orr has not had one bad word written about him in over forty years. His private life is private, his public life is his work with charities. He did not marry a supermodel. Not surprisingly, he was not known for getting into fights on the ice. He played the game by the rules.


  5. Beth,

    I suppose one way of looking at it would be if, a week or so after the World Series, MLB sent a team of their best players over to Japan to tour fora few months, then stopped off in China on the way back for another tournament. It is insane. It's motivated purely by greed, yet players will burn out, the standard will suffer and the public will stay away.

    Canada actually were in the World Cup, with a team made up almost exclusively of Asian immigrants.

    Interesting story about Orr - as someone who played game to a high standard, I saw parents of other kids push and harry their kids to a point where they fell out of love with their sport. With my son, he plays a game if he wants to, not because I want him to. I hope I stay that way.

  6. Dan,

    When I was a boy I wanted to be a professional writer. I wanted to travel the world, stay in nice hotels, visit exotic places, and get paid for [non-plagiarized] writing. What better life could there be?

    Nah, I too wanted to be a professional athlete, but an American football cheap-shot ended that dream before athletic reality had the chance to do to my mind what that blocker nicely did to my knee.

    Good luck with the comeback.