November 1, 2009

Trescothick, Gimblett and the black wings of depression

Two Somerset players, generations apart, have had their struggles with mental illness form the subject of two fine books

VS Naipaul's biographer Patrick French has said how the Nobel laureate insisted that he must tell the truth. This unusual insistence by the subject and faithful rendition by the writer made for a fascinating biography. The rule for autobiographies was laid down by George Orwell: an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.

David Foot's biography of Harold Gimblett (The Tormented Genius of Cricket) and Marcus Trescothick's autobiography (Coming Back to Me) stand out both for speaking the truth and revealing something "disgraceful". But never was the so-called disgraceful revealed with more grace than it was in these books. The illness that dare not speak its name - mental illness - is discussed with an openness that is heroic.

Gimblett and Trescothick, both from Somerset, both attacking opening batsmen, had to deal with clinical depression. Two years before he died Gimblett called up Foot and asked him for help to write a book. "The mental battles for me have been enormous," he said, "and maybe it would be a good idea to put it on record." Gimblett, who began his first-class career with a century in 63 minutes, spoke into a tape recorder.

Opening against India a year later, in 1936, in the first of only three Tests he played, Gimblett made 67 not out, striking fast bowler Mohammed Nissar for four successive boundaries at one stage.

At 38, writes Foot, "The straight drive was as potent as ever, the cover drive was in the Hammond class. But for reasons which came from within him, his career was almost over."

Depression was sometimes treated by Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a somewhat brutal but often effective technique that induced seizures. Gimblett underwent this treatment, which was also tried on the writers Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Paulo Coelho.

Three decades after Gimblett's death, clinical depression is better understood, better medication has been developed to control it, and even if it is still a mystery to the lay person, the medical literature on it is extensive.

Still, when Trescothick had a breakdown in a hotel room in Vadodara, those around were sympathetic rather than empathetic for no one understood the implications. The player himself writes in his book: "In that old macho way, I didn't want to admit to anyone what the problem might be…". Initially the official line was that he had gone back to England deal with "family problems". In a carefully orchestrated television interview Trescothick then contradicted that version by saying a bug he had picked up in India had cause his return.

When Trescothick had a breakdown in a hotel room in Vadodara, those around were sympathetic rather than empathetic for no one understood the implications. The player himself writes in his book: "In that old macho way, I didn't want to admit to anyone what the problem might be"

Understandably, it took time for the player to come to terms with his condition, but once he decided to speak the truth, he held nothing back. Coming Back to Me (ghosted by Peter Hayter) is a superb record of the mind of a depressive who happened to be an international sportsman, and one of the best at his job. It won the William Hill Sports Book of the Award last year as much for its spare style as for its searing honesty.

The illness, which ended Trescothick's international career at 32, has been characterised as being in the midst of "black wings" that visited him at irregular intervals. The manner in which Somerset rallied around the player is one of the moving aspects of the story.

Trescothick once chose to remain with the England squad rather than return home to his wife, who had to deal with the trauma of an accident to her father that left him in a coma. The guilt scarred him. "I cannot believe that I managed to persuade myself," he writes, "that my captain's needs were greater than my wife's, that the England cricket team was more important than my family."

In Australia, Trescothick was stricken again: "I knew that I had no longer any say in the matter. The illness had come back, the bastard had returned and the shadow cast by its black wings had consumed me again." He had to return home.

In a remarkable summing up, he says, "In many ways, I was the lucky one. My illness turned out to be my cure. I had no choice but to get out, and re-evaluate and take back my life."

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore