February 13, 2008

Cricketers open up

It is a mark of maturity that the likes of Shaun Tait, Lou Vincent and Marcus Trescothick have made public their turmoil



Tait decided to withdraw from the fray with a view to reviving energy and enthusiasm © AFP

In the space of a few weeks two prominent and respected cricketers have broken ranks with the macho presentation that has long been part and parcel of the sporting ethic, to inform their families and other interested parties, namely the entire game with its secret concerns and hidden emotions, that they are suffering from the form of emotional trauma often simplified under the banner of "depression". It is in many respects a breakthrough and cricket is in their debt. Old-timers may talk about malingerers and weak characters but most of the modern breed are more sympathetic, and most honest ancients will look back on their careers and remember how close they came at various times to reaching the same impasse.

Of course it reaches beyond sport and any particular ailment. Not so many years ago I came across two fine young people, a boy and a girl, an African and an Australian, whose lives had been devastated by a little known and often reluctantly diagnosed but rapidly spreading disease called stress fatigue syndrome. They were suffering terribly, and it was worse because their problem was not a broken leg or a bout of flu, something that could be seen on an x-ray or detected by an alert parent. Rather it was an inside job that undermined them, destroying their self-confidence, exhausting them and yet remaining in the shadows.

In those days stress fatigue was little recognised, and in some quarters even scorned. But I knew these youngsters and held them in high regard. They were sick, very sick, and the greatest care had to be taken with them. Luckily, their parents were wise and trusting, and after many, many awful months that stretched into years, the two youngsters started to recover their strength and eventually were able to resume their notably productive lives. Thank goodness they were surrounded by elders prepared to listen and to take their ghostly illness seriously.

No one exposed to experiences of this sort joined the loud brigade that decried stress fatigue. To the contrary, it has become clear that stress is the root cause of many contemporary ailments. Because a sickness cannot be pinned down does not mean that it is a figment of our imagination or a reflection of our weakness.

Although using the word "depression" to describe a state of mind that is commonplace in less rarefied arenas is usually avoided in sport, owing to the lingering stigma attached to it, the manner in which Lou Vincent and Shaun Tait described their ailments leaves little room for dispute. In these times of self-doubt it might be as well to remember that wars have been won by leaders suffering from the self-same torment, including Winston Churchill, whose black dog troubled him even as the bombs rained down on London. No one has ever dismissed Churchill as a soft touch, or lacking character, or any nonsense of that sort.

As emerged during Marcus Trescothick's time of torment last summer, cricket has long since moved past the idea that mental struggles are an embarrassment. That sort of view is retained only by relics still somehow persuaded that sport is played by comic-book heroes and other simpletons. Sensible people have accepted and even conveyed the complex realities. Every little thing helps.

In interviews given years ago to Mike Coward, a distinguished Australian scribe, Dennis Lillee and Geoff Marsh talked openly about how hard they had found it to adjust to "civilian" life. Michael Slater has spoken without any hint of coyness about his ups and downs. Determined to counterpoint a notably cheerful first offering, in 1983 I wrote a book called It Never Rains, therein describing the turbulent range of emotions endured during a season, and afterwards was surprised to find that many other players, Australians included, had seen themselves in its pages.

Other sportsmen have also invited the world into their hearts the better to show their true selves and to encourage others afflicted by bleakness. Several AFL players have spoken about their battles with depression, thereby counterbalancing the dangerous notion that their game is all about high catches and darting movements, that it is played by jovial automatons. In fact, of course, every sportsman lives every day of his sporting life with vulnerability. The end never seems far away, failure lurks around the corner. But sportsmen, especially, must walk the walk or else opponents and rivals will pounce, for a field is a jungle and no sign of frailty must be shown, or else the issue will be over before it has begun. Anyone who plays sport at a high level, in public, has already shown considerable fortitude. The problem arises in those living on the edge of their ability, ordinary men and women in many ways, called beyond their capabilities. For them every day is an ordeal, every success a blessing.

 
 
Others deal with the situations in their own ways, with reckless conduct, drink and so forth. One man's recreation may be another man's appeal for attention. By different routes, Trescothick, Tait and Vincent arrived at the same conclusion. For the time being the game they were playing, the life they were leading, was not worth the turmoil
 

Even public figures have opened themselves to scrutiny. To his infinite credit, Jeff Kennett, a robust and apparently invincible former premier of Victoria, has dedicated his post-political life to advancing our understanding of depression and thence our attitudes towards it. Trescothick's case confirmed that enormous progress has been made. After all, he was an England opening batsman about to start an Ashes series. How could anything encroach upon his excitement? Yet Trescothick went home, and then came the most significant moment of the entire episode. No one condemned him, not the conservatives or the liberals, not the old or the young, not the shockjocks or the humanists. All and sundry echoed the old refrain, "There but for fortune, go you or I."

Not that Trescothick , Tait and Vincent ought to be put together in a single bag, for that is to oversimplify. From a distance it seemed that Tait's complications were caused by a combination of factors; an unusual action that he could not rely on to deliver the goods when it mattered, a series of injuries, some thoughtless handling in the national side that left him short of bowling and confidence, and a sense that he did not quite belong in this company either as a cricketer or as a man. His bowling was out of tune with his personality so that he sounded like a firebrand even as he sought reassurance. Wayward remarks about his action by an embattled touring coach cannot have helped settle him down either.

Accordingly, Tait decided to withdraw from the fray with a view to reviving energy and enthusiasm. A few months' rest and a few months of bowling without pain are required and then he can think about his next step. His ability took him into a world he may not relish. It is not that he was born to play the game. Anyone living in the public eye enjoys benefits but also makes sacrifices. Not everyone enjoys the intrusion.

From a distance, Vincent has been another case. It is not that he had doubts about cricket as a game or way of life. Rather it is that he wanted it too much yet suspected he was not quite good enough. Accordingly, the stabs cut him to the quick. Perhaps he has lacked the thick skin that has carried other men along, the laughter needed to endure, the sense of absurdity that comes later, in the time of reflection.

Not long ago Colin Miller said that he considered himself to be the luckiest cricketer on earth. He had taken up spin bowling because he had a hangover one morning and surprised himself by taking wickets in club cricket. Suddenly, he was in the right place at the right time and was playing for his country in the middle of an unprecedented run of victories. Refusing to take himself seriously, he eventually turned his hair blue and withdrew. Now he tells his stories amiably on the talk circuit and meanwhile offers his services to anyone interested, including national teams. He might think about becoming a counsellor.

Vincent is a good batsman who already has served with distinction. Now he has gone a step further by drawing attention to his plight. He is not alone. Batsmen live and die by the next ball. Of course, youth is not as much affected as it has not encountered the difficulties and anyhow regards itself as immortal. Vincent rose to the edge of his abilities, and perhaps beyond, and he knew it. Too intelligent to deny the fact, but unable to reveal his concerns lest his stock fall in the rooms, he tried to keep going, but once the brain is tired the game cannot recover. Indeed the troubled sportsman finds himself trapped in a destructive pattern. Sportsmen rely on freshness of mind.

Others deal with the situations in their own ways, with reckless conduct, drink, and so forth. One man's recreation may be another man's appeal for attention. By different routes, Trescothick, Tait and Vincent arrived at the same conclusion. For the time being the game they were playing, the life they were leading, was not worth the turmoil. It is a mark of their maturity that they have not ducked the issue but rather presented their cases to a public so much better informed and prepared to listen. They have taken charge of their lives in a manner that will commend itself to all right -thinking people.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It.

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