October 11, 2012

What to do when autumn approaches

The end of a season (or a career) can be a disorienting, disconcerting time for a cricketer

The English summer is over, and the leaves are changing from green to brown.

No more warm-ups, no more training, no more gym sessions, no more ice baths. The body can have a rest.

It's funny how a professional player will count down the warm-ups left in a season, not the number of days' play left. It's the little things that get you through. We love playing, but towards the end of the season there's not much left to play for, and tiredness and a lack of motivation are very tough adversaries.

So what to do now when the days are getting shorter, when the dark is enveloping, the temperature is heading south, and it's about as comfortable as a wet blanket? The longing for cricket hasn't yet surfaced, but it will. The desire to hang with your team-mates will be there; you'll yearn to be back as part of a team, a group with a direction - a family, if you like.

For now, though, it's just you. It's all your own time to, well, do what you want. And that's awkward. It sounds great, but it'll get to you. Oh, it will. It's the end of the season, and for some, the end of a career. What to do?

Some will seek solace by following the sun south. Australia, South Africa, New Zealand for a summer abroad, coaching and playing cricket at whatever level will cover cost and leave enough for a few mid-week indulgences.

There are now a multitude of T20 competitions to be a part of, but that's only for a very select few.

There may be an end-of-season trip abroad with a team-mate or two, to reduce the complete and utter cold-turkey feeling of loneliness that occurs at 4.30pm when it's pitch black outside.

Then it's back to real life - outside of cricket, away from grounds, crowds, cameras. Normal life.

Cricket is real life but it's a different real life. It's a proper job. It may not seem that way from the outside looking in, but it's hard. I talk about how hard the mental aspect is, and, obviously, we accept the physical side.

But what cricket does is provide structure. It's a schedule that's laid out in front of you at the start of the season. If you're fit and in form, you know this is where you'll be for more or less every day of the summer. There is comfort in that, as scary as a full season programme appears. It's a nine-to-five job, just a little different.

Let's not forget the fan, the supporter, who was there on day one and also on the last day, seeing their team promoted, relegated or finish in mid-table mediocrity. Getting to the grounds is the fans' opportunity to get out of the house, be part of a team - a team of supporters. Conversations shared, opinions exchanged. Autumn takes this away from them as well.

Cricket leaves players with a lot of skills - time management, team work, dealing with both success and failure, finding better ways of doing things - that can be transferred to "real-life" jobs, but how can cricketers exploit and transfer them?

I finished my university education before I played cricket to any serious level. For me, this was the best thing. I had an education and four years of employment behind me before I headed into a ten-year career in cricket. So many players are swallowed by the game straight from school and leave knowing only cricket. True, they leave with highly transferable skills, but will those be recognised and utilised? A lot walk away with opportunities lost, time wasted, and a scary outlook for future life.

While I was injured I used to head up to the radio commentary box and get my foot in the door. It's something I enjoy, and it's a job I now list on my CV. It also helps get me my cricket fix, keeping me close to the game. I learn about cricket more, and it provides a great way to, still, partly live a cricketer's life, by going to grounds and staying in hotels. My wife likes me out of the house for a few days too. She knows I need my fix.

I have a very active imagination, which contributes to a lot of my mental issues, but when I harness it, and at the right time, it can be quite useful. I've been fortunate enough, and clever enough, to have a bit of time up my sleeve. I saved well while I was playing, and I'm using that to buy some time and explore some ideas now. I'm co-writing children's adventure/sporty books. Our first published book comes out in May. I've also been creating my own men's active underwear range. I wasn't happy with what was out there, so I decided to make my own, and very soon they will be out to market. These are ideas that I've had for quite a while. Now that I have time on my hands, and resources, I'm making them happen.

It's about taking opportunities to try something new and discover if you're suited to it and can make any sort of a career out of it. Cricketers need to have ideas. We need to look to the future. We need to use our players' associations to help with this process, in terms of feet in doors and help with the "how to" to turn an idea into something tangible. The Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) in England employs six people as professional development mentors (PDMs), who head around the county teams, helping current and former players with these decisions and developing ideas.

Jason Ratcliffe, assistant chief executive of the PCA feels that coaches have a part to play as well. "They can help facilitate more options for work experience and personal exploration during winters. We're trying through our PDMs to create the opportunities, and encouragement and understanding from the employer is very helpful.

"Many lads nowadays through 12-month contracts, spend much of the winter in the gym and the nets, with limited time for more meaningful work-life learning. It's a major concern and could be problematic when careers finish.

"A confident cricketer who knows he can do other things when cricket finally comes to an end has got to be more of an asset to a coach and club during the seasons."

So many players are swallowed by the game straight from school and leave knowing only cricket. True, they leave with highly transferable skills, but will those be recognised and utilised? A lot walk away with opportunities lost, time wasted, and a scary outlook for future life

The PCA also helps with issues that are more in the nature of mental health matters. Mind matters tutorials are available to learn about signs and symptoms for various issues, and importantly, to talk about them as early as possible. If and when the doom and gloom set in, post-season or post-career, it's good to know that there are avenues of help.

Gloucestershire and Somerset's Steve Snell has been preparing for the inevitable conclusion to his professional playing career almost since he started. He was part of a Gloucestershire team of realists. "Without full-time contracts, winters were free to study, other guys were [studying], so I started looking into it as well. I got one year completed of a journalism degree before it got too hard to juggle sport and education."

Snell, who was also an ex semi-pro footballer, was clever enough to know that sport wasn't going to last forever, maybe not even the medium term, and started making phone calls. One to BBC Bristol got him a start with radio commentary, where he sees part of his employment for the future. Currently working in Recruitments, and having success, he longs to be back out on the park, but that depends on whether he finds a contract for next summer. He's not giving up on playing, but he has "accepted the fact that it might not happen".

Robert Croft's future is looking fine. Twenty-three years of professional cricket and a 24-year old HND (Higher National Diploma) in Business Studies ("Is that any use, anymore?" he jokes) are what he has to show for his career. Walking off the park and into a coaching role with Glamorgan, the club he played for his whole career, was a natural transition. "It's my job to now repay them and do a good job as assistant coach.

"I have Sky commentary and my coaching role at Glamorgan, plus ambassador work for the club, to keep me busy. But I'm fortunate, as cricket is all I really know."

Croft understands that he, and others, now have a better chance of having success after playing because of "the PCA being proactive with after-career education - something that wasn't around ten years ago".


Some get to retire, some have it forced upon them. Injury. Form. What to do?

Have ideas and write them down, and keep adding to them. Start planning for retirement early. (It's never too early.) Save: don't blow all your earnings - it's your safety net and your launch pad. Keep faith in what you are pursuing and don't turn down opportunities to talk to people about your ideas - friends will give you the best feedback. Start taking steps to learn about fields you want to get into. Educate or reducate yourself in something you enjoy. Be prepared for the gloom and the loneliness.

Keep taking the pills, getting the sleep, eating well, drinking a little less, exercising, trying to be a better person. Keep working. Fighting demons every day. Winning.

Fast bowler Iain O'Brien played 22 Tests for New Zealand in the second half of the 2000s