October 16, 2009

Applaud Trescothick's effort, don't condemn the failure

Through his stress-related illness, Trescothick has focussed on his family, Somerset included. It was for them that he agreed to fly to India

Marcus Trescothick did his utmost to overcome the demons that have plagued the latter years of his career, but in the end, the expectation proved too great. Driven by loyalty to his county colleagues at Somerset, he travelled back to India - the scene of his breakdown on England's tour in February 2006 - and for two personally uneventful matches of the Champions League Twenty20, everything seemed to be well within his mindset.

But all it took was a quick flutter of the "black wings", as he evocatively described them in last year's award-winning autobiography, and an end to the experiment was swiftly called. Somerset's planning and reaction cannot be faulted - they did everything in their power to ease Trescothick's anxieties, and his wife Hayley was by his side throughout the trip. But as soon as the merest hint of a doubt set in, there was not even a heartbeat's hesitation from the management.

With the blessing of Brian Rose, Somerset's director of cricket, Trescothick was rushed onto the first flight home, even though his imperious talents at the top of the order were to be sorely missed in the club's subsequent defeat to the Eagles. The welfare of their player of the year, and their newly appointed captain for 2010, was of far greater importance than the fleeting (if lucrative) glory on offer in a strange and unfamiliar campaign, and in an era supposedly ruled by the bottom line that is somewhat touching.

A team of doctors and psychotherapists have worked with Trescothick in the years since his stress-related illness first emerged into the public domain, and theirs are the only opinions that hold any sway in the decisions taken by the club and the player. Nevertheless, only the stoniest heart can fail to sympathise with a man who gave his all to England for five extraordinarily successful years from his debut in 2000, only to be ground down, in the end, by the sheer futility of a life in the sporting spotlight.

Mental illnesses manifest themselves in many ways, but the afflicted often talk of hearing hostile and controlling voices that commentate on everything that they say and do. In the case of an elite sportsman, however, those voices are not only real, they exist on a multitude of platforms - in the media, in the pubs, on the streets, and latterly, in the blogosphere. Given that Trescothick fled his last two England tours in tears, and failed even to board the plane on his last attempt to play overseas in 2008, the expectation of another breakdown can only have exacerbated the pressure he put upon himself.

Sure enough, only minutes after the news of his withdrawal had been posted on Somerset's website last night, those voices broke into a chorus of cackling criticism. "Pathetic sausage-munching ****er" was one pithily sympathetic opinion that popped up on Twitter. His trip turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I know the risks and I know what can happen when it goes wrong," he had said before the tournament, "but I can only try." Try he most certainly did, but very sadly, he failed.

It would be wrong to presume a root cause for Trescothick's depression, but all the same, it is not an offence to empathise, and back in 2005, during England's tour of Pakistan, an incident occurred in the midst of a chain of events that would lead even the most well-balanced individual to question his or her priorities, let alone a character such as Trescothick, who by his own admission had already shown signs in his young life of obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

England embarked on that tour of Pakistan as the form team in world cricket - six series wins in a row and the Ashes in the bag to boot. But when Michael Vaughan's knee gave way in the days before the first Test in Multan, it was Trescothick who was handed the honour of leading the side into a new era. As it happens, he consulted with his wife before accepting the appointment - it would later transpire she was suffering from post-natal depression - but midway through the match that hidden pressure was exacerbated by a horrible accident at their family home.

Trescothick's father-in-law, John Rowse, who had come round to fix some tiles on the roof, fell 40 feet off a ladder and lay on the ground unaided for several hours. The incident, which Trescothick watched over and over again in the hours that followed, thanks to a CCTV link-up to his mobile phone, left Rowse in a critical condition in hospital, and Trescothick in the ultimate quandary.

He was leading his country in perhaps the most remote Test venue in the world - certainly it could not have been further removed from the fervent Ashes atmosphere, and it just so happened that he was 135 not out, and inching his side into the ascendancy. It was the sporting equivalent of Sophie's Choice, and condemnation awaited, no matter what course of action he took. After much agonising he put his job before his family, and - call it what you like - something resembling karma kicked in with a vengeance.

Trescothick duly missed out on a double-century, falling for 193 in the first innings, and England, in a stunning finale to the contest, were skittled for 175 second time around to lose by 22 runs. To all intents and purposes, the series was lost then and there, and so too was Trescothick, who had stayed against his better judgment, and to what avail? He limped through the next two matches, totalling 98 runs in four innings in Faisalabad and Lahore, and never again featured in an overseas Test.

Only minutes after the news of his withdrawal had been posted on Somerset's website last night, those voices broke into a chorus of cackling criticism. "Pathetic sausage-munching ****er" was one pithily sympathetic opinion that popped up on Twitter. His trip turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I know the risks and I know what can happen when it goes wrong," he had said before the tournament, "but I can only try."

"I was devastated," Trescothick wrote in his book. "Though I tried to put a brave face on things in the captain's press conference afterwards, trotting out all the required lines about 'character', 'sticking together', 'team spirit', etc, the beer in Vaughan's room before we departed tasted especially flat. My father-in-law was lying in the intensive care unit at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol. Hayley was pleading with me to come home. I had captained the side, scored one of my best-ever hundreds, and we had lost."

With that episode etched on his memory, it's little wonder he's felt a shiver on each subsequent occasion he's been away from home. In the very first chapter of his autobiography, Trescothick wrote of the awful separation anxiety that engulfed him at Heathrow Airport in March 2008, when he attempted to fly to Dubai for Somerset's pre-season tour, but couldn't bear the thought of being away from his young daughters, Ellie and Millie, even for 12 days.

Family has been Trescothick's overriding priority since that winter, and who can condemn him for that? By extension, that family includes the county that has guided his fortunes since his teenage days, and it was for them, more than for him, that he agreed to fly to India this month to partake in a potentially transmogrative tournament. He should be applauded for trying, but he doesn't deserve to be condemned for failing.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments