Making a case for the injured mind March 17, 2005

Slater shows importance of mind over batter

Starting today, Peter English, Cricinfo's Australasian editor, will write a fortnightly column. In his first piece, he takes up the issue of the injured mind through the poignant story of Michael Slater.

A penny for your thoughts: Michael Slater's career had more highs, including this 106 against West Indies in 1999, than lows © Getty Images

Mental strength is such an important characteristic, but a calf injury will get a player more sympathy than a sick mind. Steve Waugh's most enviable trait was not run-scoring or baggy-green pride, it was the grey matter his cap protected. Unforgiving, unflinching, almost all-conquering, Waugh's brain was the model for long-term success.

Waugh grew to understand the power of the mind and set about dismantling those of the opposition with his mental disintegration. Michael Slater was a successful and senior member during the early years of Waugh's captaincy, but while his team-mates were looking for flaws in their rivals, Slater was experiencing problems with a pattern that was last year diagnosed as bipolar disorder. His behaviour started taking noticeable turns in 2000 and over the next year his actions created much publicity but received little help. Team-mates turned from him, and professional assistance was too far away.

Slater this week revealed he suffered from the manic depressive disease, which causes large mood swings, and was worried about how his announcement would be received. The threat of admitting weakness has lasted much longer than his playing days. Society says injury-induced retirees are glorified; those with sick minds are signed off as nutcases.

"Are people going to think I'm a fruit loop," he asked Enough Rope's Andrew Denton as he shared his secret. Twenty percent of Australians experience some sort of mental illness, yet an opening batsman who thrilled and spilled in a Test career of 71 Tests, scoring 5312 runs at 42.83, was more cautious - scared even - than facing Ambrose and Walsh at their fastest.

The sad case of Slater, who believes the disorder was a by-product of the spinal disease Ankylosing Spondylitis afflicting him since he was at the Cricket Academy, highlights a disturbing cricketing anomaly. The mind is a player's greatest weapon but maintenance and repairs are generally left to the individual.

Why don't teams tour with psychologists? A usual support-staff contingent includes a coach, manager, physiotherapist, masseuse and sometimes an assistant coach, bio-mechanist, yoga instructor and chef. Bodies are temples, but minds are like mini-bar bills and are the user's responsibility. For help it's usually necessary to make an international phone call or have a chat with a senior figure behind the nets.

The problem with the in-dressing-room solution, compared to the confidentiality of a professional, is the trusted player or coach has a team duty to pass on information about the sufferer's mindset. Forget the personal damage, what could it do to the side? Waugh, who praised his former team-mate for talking publicly about the illness, made the selectors and Malcolm Speed, the then Cricket Australia chief executive, aware of Slater's slide in 2001 and he was dumped, never to return, for the final Test of the Ashes tour.

While losing the one-day series 5-0 to Australia, John Bracewell said his batsmen were offered the use of Gilbert Enoka, the team's psychologist, and the reaction was the stereotypical "send them to couch" humour. At his next public outing Bracewell effectively told the doubters to grow up. Psychologists were part of professional sport.

Slater will forever wonder whether things could have been different. It now seems absurd that Waugh's golden calf injury sustained at Trent Bridge in 2001 was a national concern and the state of Slater's seriously worsening state of mind was mockingly dismissed. Waugh recovered to play at The Oval and scored a gutsy 157 not out; Slater's combined problems - panic attacks that rushed him to hospital, reactive arthritis that folded him into a wheelchair - forced him to retire at 34. Leaping, helmet-kissing celebrations like his Lord's 152 were old, fanciful dreams.

The first signs of Slater's bipolar disorder came in 2000 with his television commentary debut in England, and grew to become as common as a couple a day. Panic attacks are worse than any hamstring strain or bone-spur operation. The health problems were compounded and contributed to by the separation from his wife Stephanie, the accusation that he was addicted to cocaine and the awful, false rumour that he was the father of Adam Gilchrist's child.

Down-time: Slater argues with Venkat after he was denied a catch to Rahul Dravid at Mumbai in 2001 © Getty Images

During this time Slater gave regular signs of his trouble. Glass of wine in-hand, he jumped on stage to sing with Jimmy Barnes at the 2001 Allan Border Medal, then there was the Rahul Dravid outburst, the buying of his long-saved-for Ferrari and four tattoos when one would have done. "This might clear up for a few people why my behaviour appeared erratic," he explained of his decision to go public.

Why it wasn't dealt with, and why he wasn't properly helped as it was happening remains a mystery. The talk on that Ashes tour was Slater was running quickly off the rails, but he was left on his own. Slater said he felt isolated as his friends turned their backs.

Now a commentator who talks like he batted - fresh, mostly relaxed and highly entertaining - Slater's eye-sparkle remains but his body looks worn out for a 35-year-old. He hopes for a long career but worries the "fruit loop" reaction could hinder his prospects. If his bipolar revelation has that effect it would be a greater injustice than the lack of support he received as he careered out of international cricket.

"I wish I'd been stronger," Slater said. "I was too sensitive and wore my heart on my sleeve." Perhaps he was just right: there were far more highs than lows. Perhaps the people around him should have worried more about their caring than the cracking up. Mental injuries must be treated more seriously than any grade-one muscle tear.

Peter English is Australasian editor of Cricinfo.