September 16, 2013

'Player associations aren't there to make trouble'

Interview by Subash Jayaraman

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: Your stated goal is "To promote and protect the interest of the members" - both current and past English first-class cricketers. Is your engagement limited only to the relationship between the players and the ECB and the counties therein or extended to, say, the T20 franchises that the English players may be playing in around the world?

Angus Porter: We are there to support the players. The definition of "our current members" is any player who has a contract with either the ECB or one of the first-class counties. We embrace the players coming from overseas to play in England. And of course, we also have a duty to cater to those players if they are playing somewhere else across the globe, yes, including when they are playing in T20 cricket.

SJ: Monty Panesar got into trouble for urinating on bouncers outside a nightclub, and has since been let go by his county. Where does the PCA come into this, in terms of helping him regroup and recover his image?

AP: Well, as you might understand, I might not talk about an individual case. If I can broaden it out to more general terms - education and player welfare are the core parts of what we do. Player welfare involves us being there to support players who have problems that may be cricket-related or personal or family-related. Our job is to make sure that they have got an appropriate support network, appropriate access to any assistance that they might need. That might be assistance that we can give directly - we have a team of six personal development managers, each of whom covers three counties and aim to build up personal relationships with players and help them to manage their lives off the field and prepare for life after cricket. We also have support services available which can be accessed either through us or directly through confidential help.

SJ: Without actually talking about a particular player, in terms of alcohol or behaviour or personal problems, I would like to get more information on the type of support network that you provide.

AP: The front end of what we do is to do a lot of education. We begin the engagement with players in the county academies before they become cricketers and there we will begin talking to them about lifestyle, including issues like alcohol and drugs and anti-corruption and so forth.

Now, if things do go wrong, then we have a partnership with a network of medical professionals, which is provided through an organisation called LPP. We have a confidential helpline through which players can be assessed. We have got a network of medical professionals who specialise in the different types of challenges that somebody might have. If somebody has, say, an alcohol problem, we would probably expect them to be helped by somebody who is specialised in that area. If they have a mental illness or a problem with anxiety or depression, we will put them in touch with the most appropriate person.

SJ: We had an issue with one English player, Mervyn Westfield. What sort of pre-emptive measures are taken by the PCA, and what were the steps in place, and how have you stepped it up since?

AP: The Mervyn Westfield case dates back to 2009. That predates my time in the organisation. To be honest, I don't think at that time we were doing as much as we could or should have done, any of us, in cricket. Since then, and it was in early 2010, which coincided with my arrival in PCA, we decided that we should increase the amount of education that we gave to players about the risks of corruption.

We did a big focus session with each of the counties in 2010. It was actually after our session at Essex that players realised that they had a duty to report what they knew about Mervyn and Danish Kaneria. That was what brought the whole situation to light.

We have now reached a point where in order to be registered to play first-class cricket in England, you have to have passed an online tutorial that both presents the facts to you in terms of what the offenses are, what you need to do and what the consequences are if you do offend.

SJ: I want to further talk about this because Mervyn has served a jail sentence and he is not allowed to play cricket till 2017, I believe. What is the current relationship of the PCA with Mervyn? What sort of work has been done with him to rehabilitate him and perhaps get him back into cricket?

AP: Right now, are in a process of editing some film material that Mervyn cooperated with. He recently had his cricketing sentences adjusted so that he will be able to come back into club cricket, at least, a year earlier than what was originally envisaged, for cooperating with our educating efforts. We have done some filming with Mervyn, and that is going to be hugely valuable material for educating other cricketers, particularly young cricketers. Our experience with education is that players will listen to other players more than they will listen to me or anybody else.

SJ: You mentioned that you had joined the PCA in the early part of 2010. You must have had a rude welcome with all the stuff that happened with Pakistan in the tour to England that summer.

AP: It was an interesting time. From time to time, things jump up and catch you unaware. Right now, for instance, I have learned from the tragedy of Tom Maynard's death last year to implement a new process of out-of-competition testing for recreational drugs. That is something that we think is sensible to do, just as long as it is done in a way that doesn't link the taking of non-performance-enhancing drugs to a sporting crime because it is very different from somebody who is actually taking steroids in order to cheat.

SJ: You mentioned the confidential helpline that the PCA has. How much of that helpline is getting used?

AP: We are seeing access to the helpline increase significantly. At any point in time, we are probably supporting about 10-20 current and past players. But the use of that helpline has increased over the past two or three years. We have been lucky enough to have some very strong individuals who have been prepared to talk about their challenges. Here, I would highlight Marcus Trescothick. When he talked publicly about his struggles with depression, given his stature as a man and as a cricketer, it did more than any of the rest of us can to communicate to other cricketers and other past players that it is not a sign of weakness to admit to a problem and to ask for help. It is a sign of strength. Marcus has been joined by other players.

SJ: I saw a tutorial on the PCA website - Mind Matters - where people can identify whether they have symptoms of mental-health issues - anxiety, depression, etc. So, for example, one of the players goes through the tutorial and he goes "Check, check, check." He is showing symptoms of depression at some stage. What does the PCA do from there?

AP: I think players can opt to do a number of things. We don't expect all players to sit down and spend half an hour or an hour going through a tutorial if they don't think it is relevant to them. It is a resource that is available for them if they think they have a problem. You can't expect an online solution to provide the total answer. We have got a very slim book on depression that we have sent out to all past players. The interesting thing about that book is that I don't think a majority of the past players have read it, but what we have been struck by is the number of people who have come back and said, "I got this book and I gave it to my wife and she read it and this is great because this is exactly what she has been struggling with", or "… my father… " or "… me… "

What do they do if they identify that they have a problem? Well, as I said before, they have got the confidential helpline they can ring direct. In practice, they quite often will come through us, through the personal development manager with whom they have got a relationship, with Jason Radcliffe who heads a member services team and who has a brilliant reputation in English cricket.

The one thing that we can't do is to make people ask for help.

SJ: Steve Davies came out as gay a couple of years ago. Does the PCA have any role in providing a support system, anything of that sort?

AP: Yes, indeed. The most notable thing about Steve Davies when he came out, the general reaction from players, was to shrug their shoulders and say that it is no big deal. He has had no issues with it, which is very encouraging and marks out cricket as being a sport which is a bit different from other sports, but people might be afraid of the reaction. We are currently working with Davies on an education programme that he wants to take into schools, where his motive is all about the fact that many young people commit suicide as a consequence of struggling with their sexuality.

SJ: We have had situations in the last few years, especially with the IPL coinciding with the beginning of the English summer, and ECB scheduling Tests in the month of May, which wasn't a good thing for the England players. But now, for the 2014 season, there are not going to be any Tests scheduled for the month of May. How much of a role did PCA have in it?

AP: I don't think that we will get anywhere if we approach an issue like this in a confrontational way because the realities are that, as well as representing the interest of the current and past players, we have a duty to the future generation. Therefore, we are very concerned about making sure that the game heads in the right direction. We are also very clear that Test cricket delivers the overwhelming percentage of income to the English game and that supports the county game and the grass roots game as well. We are constantly struggling with trying to do the right thing for a relatively small number of elite players and to do the right thing for the game and the right thing for the board and our membership and our future membership. So I think that what we are anxious to do is to make sure that, first of all, we don't undermine Test cricket in this country.

Secondly, if it is possible to minimise overlaps between the IPL and our season, we should do so. And so we were actively engaged in very constructive discussions with the ECB. We were able to find a way in structuring the season next year which does reduce that overlap somewhat. It has the added benefits of allowing the domestic schedule to be launched without it being in the shadow of the first Test matches of the summer. It is kind of a win-win-win solution. And, from a player point of view, it doesn't completely fix the problem, but it reduces the overlap a little bit and allows players to be available for the IPL for longer.

SJ: So do we expect that kind of arrangement to continue further as well, beyond 2014, where there are no home Tests in England in the month of May?

AP: I don't think I can say confidently that this is the new template that we will always apply, because as we all know, the international calendar is complex and ever-changing. So at this point, we look at 2014 and we think that we will do something similar in 2015, but of course every year there are ICC events - World Cups, World Twenty20s, and so forth. So we will have to manage it on an year-by-year basis.

SJ: I want to touch upon something that happened last summer, which is the Kevin Pietersen text message scandal. Did the PCA have any role in the fall-out of it? Did you have to take sides or were you on the sidelines?

AP: It is an example of the sort of situation that we come across all the time, where potentially you can find yourself in a conflictive position if different groups of players are on different sides of a particular issue. And as a general principle what we try to do is to work to find a constructive solution that works for everybody rather than taking sides. I am glad that the Kevin Pietersen issue, without talking specifically about the role that we played, I am very glad that we got a good outcome in that case.

SJ: Tim May was replaced by L Sivaramakrishnan as the ICC player representative in the cricket committee. And FICA had - seemingly for the right reasons - issues with it. There was a lot of back and forth. What has come of it?

AP: I think that the big broad issue that we are talking about here is proper recognition of players and the right of players to be represented by an elected representative through player associations. What is the case at the moment is that it is demonstrably clear that there are some boards that don't recognise the value the player associations can bring. I think that that is something that we as player associations have to take responsibility for. We have to demonstrate that we are not here to make trouble, but that we are here to try and make this game better.

SJ: But the elevation of L Siva to that position, what seemed to be wrong was that the processes were tampered with, perhaps. FICA had issues with it, but ICC says nothing wrong was done. Where is that particular issue now?

AP: That issue may be reopened. But I don't think that the process that was used in the election is a big issue. I think that the big issue is that if we are going to have somebody who is representing the players, you need to have somebody at the table who has the means of ensuring that they are equipped to represent the views of the players. That is my issue. I don't see how anybody who hasn't got the resources of the player associations to research and understand where the players are coming from can claim that they are representing the views of their players. All they can do is to say what they think the players think, which is likely to be a very different thing.

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Subash Jayaraman
Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch

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