Jonathan Trott's problems highlight why depression is common to cricketers

Jonathan Trott, who quit Ashes tour of Australia, said that he cannot currently operate at the level he has done in the past © Getty Images

Jonathan Trott, who returned to England after the first Ashes 2013-14 Test at Brisbane, is one of the many cricketers who have struggled with mental stress. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the reasons behind chronic depression in cricket, while arguing the case for spreading awareness about the afflictions among the cricketing community.

Jonathan Trott has seen it all.

He has experienced the thrill of connecting with the juicy part of the bat, the sight of the ball beating the fielder and racing to the fence, the growing sound of applause, his image appearing on the giant scoreboard as his bat is raised to acknowledge the cheers.

And then he has also experienced the aftermath of triumph, of teammates dousing him in champagne, celebratory dinner in glitzy five-star hotels. The fans stopping for autographs, mobbing him for pictures. His face on every paper, stories narrated with all the drum roll associated with success.

It often seems an extraordinarily good life. Getting paid beyond dreams for playing a game you love, in currencies of riches, fame and adulation. Trott has been through all that from his Test debut, and for a large part of his career.

But there is a downside. And unfortunately Trott is the latest cricketing name to fall victim to the dark patches that often spread across a cricketer’s emotions.
Cricket and the idle mind

Every sport carries with it the possibilities of disappointment. There are moments when one is prone to fail in front of millions on the world stage, periods and phases of untold embarrassment. These can be as traumatic as the euphoric highs associated with triumphs.

Such dualities are not limited to cricket. The names Amanda Beard, Rebecca Marino, Christina Kim, Sebastian Deisler, Robert Enke and Leon McKenzie provide ample evidence that mental problems plague every sport, especially in recent times.

But cricket comes with a crucial, curious caveat.

In few other sports does one spend hours, even days in the dressing room, idly waiting for action.

During the innings of the side, while other batsmen hold fort, there is too much time for the cricketer to battle the demons of one’s mind, to come face to face with fears of failure, to grapple with one’s loss of form. When one fails, especially over a stretch of time, the passiveness of the pavilion is a fertile breeding ground for the tentacles of anxiety and depression. One stays cocooned in one’s own thoughts, replaying the recent horrors on the pitch, wondering which of his teammates will displace him from the playing eleven.

As the team’s innings continues, the out of form cricketer is left alone to brood on his past few unrewarding forays to the middle. On the slippery slopes of a poor run, his confidence slides away. Despair grows.

Also, apart from the prolonged periods of inaction, there is another difference brought about by the game — especially for the batsman. It is the uncertainty, day in and day out, that distinguishes cricket from other sports.

A golfer may be secure in the knowledge that he can make up for a bad first or second hole because there will be 18 in all. A footballer can bank on whatever remains of the 90-minutes to reverse a missed chance or a lapse in defence. Even two bad sets can be overcome in tennis with a late comeback.

However, in cricket, all it takes is one ball. The opportunities of clawing out of misery can be very limited, and an early dismissal in the wake of a series of low scores can only add to the gloom. The batsman returns, brooding and forlorn, to the dressing room. The cloud of despondency may follow him even as he stands at slip or mid-off. Cricket allows too much time to think about failures.

It is not that the affliction is limited to batsmen. Bowlers can suffer as much, and just a couple of bad overs can end their spells for the entire innings. After that, they can be left obsessing about the lack of line and length while morosely patrolling long-leg, and later beating themselves up in the dressing room as their batsmen try to score the runs that they leaked. In fact, it is more common to witness bowlers losing their plot, stumbling upon bundled nerves and spraying it all over the place.

The cliché ‘glorious uncertainties of cricket’ can often fail to live up to the ‘glorious’ tag. The uncertainty component, exciting as it may often be to the spectator, can team up with loss of form, inaction and loneliness to turn into acute corrosive tension.

In his perceptive essay The Mystery of Cricket, the poet and novelist PJ Kavanagh drew the analogy of poets: “The solitariness has the tang of the heroic about it, and around the great player an aura settles. Like poets, cricketers spend unimaginable hours … trying to dig an elusive perfection out of themselves in the face of an infinite number of variables, and as a result a large proportion of their lives belongs to the realm of the mystical. Like poets they are as deeply locked in a struggle with themselves as they are with the opposition.”
Young, alone and abroad

There are two additional aspects to consider.

One, most cricketers have to deal with such lapses in form leading to depression in their relatively early days of youth. By the time a barrister or a surgeon have gathered enough experience to step into their heydays, the cricketer’s career is over. So, it is the young heart that will always thud with tension and have to deal with the seeds of self-doubt.

In the 1953 film The Final Test, Jack Warner plays the Test veteran Sam Palmer who says, “The trouble with making a game a profession is that you’re at the top too young. The rest of the way’s a gentle slide down. Not so gentle sometimes.” Yes, these mental problems often plague the very young, minds that are not yet calloused from the blows of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The effect of distress and dilemma can be quite far-reaching on the still impressionable mindscape.

Secondly, these rather youthful minds grappling with serious problems are often left to do so alone in a strange land, without the support system of family and friends. The long, long tours can often be devastating for a cricketer’s mental wellbeing, especially if the said cricketer is married and has a family.

That is why we have several recent episodes of cricketers breaking down during tours to distant lands. The most famous case before Trott had been Marcus Trescothick. Trescothick’s England teammates Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard have all demonstrated the same symptoms on lengthy trips abroad.
Acknowledging the problem

There is a reason why today we come to know of increasing instances of stress related depression in cricket. It is because the world has finally woken up and started to acknowledge mental wellbeing as a vital component of an otherwise physical sport.

Before this century, there were enough examples of clinical depression and advanced stages of distress among cricketers, but they did not really receive the desired care or sympathy. Mental impregnability was taken for granted, something top grade cricketers were supposed to be born with.

Being hard as nails was equated with ‘Killer Instinct of Champions’ and other misguided misnomers, and someone showing signs of mental problems was liable to be ridiculed. “Most of the game is won in the mind,” used to be a favourite line among coaches, but employing professionals to understand the workings of that very mind of cricketers was often considered superfluous. The international sport carried ingredients of machismo, and it equated mental problems with liability.

In fact, while today Iain O’Brien can openly blog about the demons in his mind, Dilip Vengsarkar’s decision to forego the Pakistan tour of 1989 because of mental fatigue had been met with incredulity. A year-and-a-half before the event, in 1987, Vengsarkar, then captain of India, had given an interview to Sportsweek. During the conversation, his toddler daughter Pallavi had come crawling along and the Bombay batsman had picked her up, saying somewhat emotionally, “I have missed a lot of seeing my kids grow up. I wouldn’t like to go on too many long tours anymore.” Yet, when he announced his unavailability for the Pakistan tour, a new word Vengsarkaritis was coined by some sections of the Indian media to mock sportsmen when they talked about mental fatigue.

While Trescothick was able to commendably describe his illness and suffering in graphic detail in his autobiography Coming Back to Me, Wally Hammond’s lifelong agony had to be analysed by David Foot in his excellent Wally Hammond — The Reason’s Why.

Indeed, former England batsman Graeme Fowler was diagnosed with depression only in 2004, at the age of 47. Before that, he had been forced to struggle alone with his psychological problems all through his playing days during the 1980s.

By the time Fowler was finally confirmed as a victim of depression and cricket admitted such problems could exist, six English, five Australians, seven South Africans and two New Zealand Test cricketers had already lost the battle with the depression and stress and had killed themselves. There may have been many other cases, often hushed up in the rather more closed societies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies. We will perhaps never be able to categorise the deaths of Baqa Jilani, Rusi Modi and Cotar Ramaswamy with certainty.

However, if only the documented numbers of suicides are analysed with respect to the total number of Test cricketers produced by England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the proportion does turn out to be significant, and alarmingly more than the prevalent rate among normal populations.

The names of the cricketing men who took their own lives read like a proper Who’s Who of greatness. From the old English heroes Arthur Shrewsbury and Andrew Stoddart, to the supreme South African Aubrey Faulkner, to the irrepressible Sid Barnes, the names are aplenty and surprising. There frequently seems to be a dark, self-destructive side to the mind associated with supremely gifted cricketing individuals, as is seen in the case of Harold Gimblett and Jack Iverson.

Down the years, many others have contemplated ending it all when faced with the tribulations surrounding cricket. Thankfully in these cases, they have tarried before taking the final irrevocable step. Some of the men who have confessed to thinking about taking their lives during troubled phases have been, among others, Wayne Larkins, Jack Russell, Sudhir Naik, Phil Tufnell and Bill Alley.

In spite of all this, depression was not taken seriously enough to consider professional counselling for team members on a regular basis. It had been treated as softness, an overhead, a weakness on the way to winning Test matches.

In fact, when Tufnell had a fit of depression during the 1994-95 tour that had him wanting to, “Curl up and die”, he was fined £1,000 by the management. “They needed to punish me for suffering an emotional collapse,” he later said. This in spite of the fact that depression and melancholia have been identified as afflictions across ages, from the days of Hippocrates to Hamlet to Freud.

Even today, while Trott’s ailment finds sympathy from the hardened Ashes veteran Shane Warne, we find India-born South African cricketer Gulam Bodi mocking him with his imbecilic tweet, “Hahaha, joke of the day! Trott to go home frm the ashes due to stress illness! Bloody man up n take the heat! Stop running for cover.” [sic]

Bodi apologised soon enough, but it did underline the widespread lack of awareness of a genuine problem that has plagued cricketers all through history and continues to become a more severe problem by the day. Mental illness is still looked upon as a deplorable chink in the armour of someone who should be a hardened cricketer.

One does wish Trott a speedy and peaceful recovery away from the media glare. One hopes he will overcome this foe within him who can be more lethal than any bowler he has faced.

At the same time, there does seem to be a strong case for counsellors to work closely with cricketers and cricket administrators — to spread awareness and care, and perhaps to look at ways and means to create a more humane cricketing calendar.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)