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.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rightarmover on February 18, 2008, 2:39 GMT

    Well written i must say, i can understand how that can be, i was suffering from depression when i was playing in Perth WACA Grade cricket and instead of taking the expected steps up to further grades, my cricket totally fell away as did my love for playing the game and for the sake of myself and the club i pulled out. One paticular game i was felt so down i couldnt even land the ball on the wicket to save myself, i still cant explain what happended other than depression destroying my confidence and i realised during that game that i needed to get out of it fast. The club didnt recognise my problems and i quickly fell by the way side. I hope that Tait, Vincent and Trescothick can recover their confidence in themselves not just for crickets sake but for their own.

  • Nige_C on February 16, 2008, 8:31 GMT

    It is interesting that in NZ over the past couple of years there has been a campaign headed by a high profile sportsman (John Kirwan ex All Black)to try and get people to have greater understanding for those with mental illness. Perhaps this change of perception within NZ has enabled Vincent to step forward. In fact if anyone should be able to sympathize with Vincents plight it should be Sir Richard Hadlee (NZ selector). He suffered from stress and fatigue in the mid eighties and underwent a complete transformation both mentally and physically (he shortened his run up causing national outrage). With the retirement of Fleming NZ needs Vincent and his experience for the tour of England. Lets hope that there is the support in place for Vincent to achieve this as compared to the total lack of support in Hadlee's day.

  • Tumbarumbar on February 16, 2008, 3:50 GMT

    Utthaman are you taking some form of mind bending medication? Why can't young men have depression? I suffered an injury that effectively ended my chosen career and have had ongoing depression since the age of 23 largely as a result of the trauma surrounding that, I didn't choose to have it and I don't let it run my life, but at my worst I couldn't honestly have put my hand on my heart and told my friends or team mates I was doing my best at anything. I'd guess that's where Shaun Tait is right now - how can you play a team sport if you feel you can't give your best? As for Tait's action you must be looking through the same glasses as John Bracewell if you think he chucks. Tait has a lot of problems with his action but he sure doesn't chuck.

  • masterblaster666 on February 15, 2008, 4:42 GMT

    To Utthaman: There is nothing per se wrong with a sling action..it is just that not many pace bowlers use it, probably because it is a little more difficult to control your line and length with such an action. I really don't know what prompted NZ to raise whispers about Tait's action.

  • azaro on February 14, 2008, 16:39 GMT

    Yes, there is no reason that sports workers are any different than other workers so it is inevitable that a percentage will suffer these types of conflicts. I just think it needs to be considered in the whole scheme of things. Pressure can create extreme stress in many susceptible people and depression is a clinical condition.

    Of course it is more fashionable to write about houshold names from sport, movies or the political arena but the stress is no more or less on those individuals laid-off by the economic downturn and in danger of losing their homes through the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Celebrities do, however, generally have the advantage of riches to help them get the help that the average person cannot afford.

  • ozziefan08 on February 14, 2008, 7:37 GMT

    I think Shaun Tait has to be applauded for walking away from the game as he did. He could've just played on and bowled poorly. To say that his action is dubious is rubbish, if Muttiah Muralitharan can be cleared with a "correct action" then anyone in world cricket can. Tait needs the time off, and i suggest he will bounce back stronger than before. Anyone who says he hasnt proved himself yet is crazy, he was one of the main reasons we triumphed in the west indies. International teams are just scared of him. They have a right to be.

  • greenwood on February 14, 2008, 7:06 GMT

    Just for the record there are and were gay cricketers of both sexes. In Sydney they even have a tourney of sorts.

    Back to the subject of stress.

    All people react in different ways to different stimuli and this reaction can and does take different forms at different ages and differing social and economic conditions of which stress is one form, aggression is another (it could be argued that this is a relief of stress), as is withdrawal, indifference, acceptance and so on. Some people are born without the ability to be stressed - life is a cruise. Others can find the smallest thing stressful - life is a worry.

    Murali and Warne seemed, and I repeat seemed, to cruise through their troubles. Others like Walters, Greenidge, Richards, LLoyd and Co never seemed to have any. Others wore their heart on their sleeve like Hughes (K - not Merv, God knows how to describe him!).

    With regard Tait, what Hussey said is probably the most poignant and correct - the players must support him as

  • Cricinfouser on February 14, 2008, 2:59 GMT

    In my opinion Shaun Tait has taken a break from cricket to get his action corrected.New Zealand has already filed a complaint to ICC regarding his action and he was under scrutiny regarding that because just one match before his retirement he was so confident and pumped up that he said he would run through the Indian side and not only that he wanted to play the test match at Perth even though he bowled poorly in Sydney.Australian Cricket Board would have seen a defect in his action and would have adviced him to take corective measures,so he was not left with any choice but to take break.Lou Vincent,Strauss and Thorpe look genuine canddidates for 'Breakdown due to stress' but Shaun Tait is young hasn't proved anything and for him to say that he is effected by stress looks dubious.

  • LisaDun on February 14, 2008, 0:04 GMT

    Some have inherent strengths to fight it out. Murali is a classic example. Some others might not have the same courage. Team management and sport authorities should have systems and resources to identify the very sensitive and vulnerable players such that appropriate counselling could be available when needed.

  • kiruthikan on February 13, 2008, 23:07 GMT

    Good Article Indeed. But Peter's Comment about Newzealand Coach's doubts over Tait sound a bit weird. Why Peter Can't see beyond Australia? What about Murali, Harbhajan, Akther, Shaqlain and other Asians. Whenever they became a challenge to Australia, some Aussie or two would raise doubts about their action and massacare them..............IS CRICKET IS ONLY ABOUT AUSTRALIA PETER?....(Think how many times Murali was put under pressure by aussie media and think how many times he proved himself by going through tests?)

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