Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

Hold the judgements and the congratulations

Hasty assumptions will not help Jonathan Trott, or our understanding of mental health

Ed Smith

November 27, 2013

Comments: 38 | Text size: A | A

Jonathan Trott trudges back to the pavilion , England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford, 3rd day, August 3, 2013
One way or the other, we've been sharp on the draw in reacting to Trott's problem © Getty Images

I was very sad to hear that Jonathan Trott has returned home from the Ashes with stress-related problems. I admire him as a player on many levels. He does not owe his England career to being a favourite of power brokers inside the English game and media. He had to force his way into the team through weight of runs. Once in the side, to keep the critics at bay, he has had to keep scoring runs. Very often, he has done exactly that. He has been a strong, resilient batsman, an "absolute rock" in the England side as Andy Flower said yesterday.

As an opponent in county cricket, I found Trott to be relentless in his pursuit of self-improvement. His instinctive answer to the sport's challenges was to spend a few hours in the middle and battle his way through. Like Alastair Cook, Trott has come close to maximising the talent he was given. In terms of character, there is no higher praise in professional sport.

If the news itself saddened me, the reaction to Trott's withdrawal has been saddening in a quite different way. A few days ago, Trott's batting, and his character as a batsman, was being brutally deconstructed across the spectrum. With the news of his withdrawal, expert opinion has performed a convenient 180-degree turn.

Analysis need not always rely on assumption. It is possible to interpret the facts we do know without guessing about those we do not. Sadly, the discussion of Trott's departure has encouraged a worrying series of related assumptions.

The first is a problem of language, or, to be precise, labelling. Where mental health is concerned there is a tendency to blur categories that ought to remain distinct. The subject of stress is bracketed together with mental health, and then depression becomes synonymous with mental illness. That is a dangerous series of lapses in language.

Yesterday I was asked to appear on several radio and television programmes, presumably because I have sometimes written about the subject of depression. But we do not have any evidence that Trott has depression, in the clinical sense of the term. Trott may have a version of depression. He may have an extreme case of stress. He may have reached the limit of his psychological resilience for a variety of reasons, some public and others private. We simply do not know. What gets lost here is a very different truth: some people, though they never suffer from any form of clinical depression at all, nonetheless experience phases in their lives when they are unable to function in their professional capacities. They are no less deserving of our sympathy.

A second problem arose from the humane desire to avoid heartlessness. I want to be clear. I have no time for the old-school view that stress-related problems can always be solved by a matey drink or a stiffening of resolve. It would have been inexcusable if Trott had been ridiculed for coming home. Crucially, however, it does not follow that he will be helped by a mood of hasty congratulation. Trott's withdrawal, about which we know very few real facts, was instantly recast as an act of bravery. In this analysis, Trott is described as "confronting an issue", as though he was consciously acting on behalf of thousands of people in a similar situation. Note that Trott himself has said nothing of the kind. In saddling him with the role of fighting for a just and humane cause, we further burden and complicate the life of a man who is already searching for greater simplicity.

There are also serious dangers in rushing to announce that Trott has "made the right decision". What does that phrase mean? Who really knows, objectively, whether it is the right decision? Only time will tell. A man has made a judgement about his own state of mind, and we have leapt to judge that judgement as "correct". Correct according to whom? The assumption here is that we are in position to affirm Trott's own judgement of himself. That demands many guesses. Rather than judging his withdrawal as "right", we might use a different phrase. It is right that the decision is Trott's. Beyond that, let's stay silent. In rushing to decree that Trott "made the right decision", we make a speedy return for him more difficult, not easier. In blindly praising his decision, we accidentally bolt the aeroplane door behind him.

Fourthly, language matters. We use words, hopefully, in an attempt to describe reality. Problems follow when words slide from describing the world as it is, and instead become slippery approximations for the world as we would like it to be. When it is stated that he has "done the brave thing", or that playing on might even have been cowardly - given that, in his words, he was "not 100%" - the phrases are intended to support Trott. In fact, snap judgements accidentally demean others. A moment's logic will suffice. What about those players who have faced stress-related problems and decided to play on - and found that the decision suited their circumstances, and the stress once more receded to manageable levels? Were they cowards?

Making assumptions based on little or no evidence does nothing to help Trott, nothing to help the understanding of mental health, and nothing to educate people about the nature of depression.

Jonathan Trott has gone home. I hope he is back soon.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

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Posted by OzMongrel on (December 2, 2013, 18:21 GMT)

Who cares if Jonathan is a coward or a hero? He needs time to find out what is best for him, and it is not for anyone else to judge or comment. As a fan of excellence, I hope to see him back in the England side, but as a man, I hope to hear that he is happy. His life is his, not ours, no matter how much media coverage this gets. As an Aussie, good luck, mate.

Posted by JethroTell on (November 29, 2013, 3:49 GMT)

I feel for Trott but I am disgusted that the Aussies and Warner in particular are criticised for their comments on Trott's batting. Please note that the English coach and selectors picked him to tour knowing full well he was out of form and at risk on the tour due to his issues. They pushed him to the limit, not Warner. They knew about his illness, not the Aussies. And they wish to blame others for their mistakes and the risks that they took with Trott's health. I wish Trott all the best.

Posted by   on (November 29, 2013, 1:14 GMT)

Clinical objectivity which takes no unstated assumptions! This adds another dimension to the article on the same topic by Martin Crowe.

Posted by Miggygee13 on (November 29, 2013, 0:24 GMT)

Such common sense brilliantly articulated. Only came to this article after the disappointing generalisations and assumptions made by the fantastic former cricket Martin Crowe. Whether mental illness, stress, just not being up for the 'battle' these Ashes have become. We celebrate those who excel at the height of the contest, but no-one should condemn, ridicule or be patronising towards those who don't.

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (November 28, 2013, 13:50 GMT)

@Englishfan, I suspect it will be Root to come in at 3, Although Bell did play in that slot a couple of times in 2011 against india when Trott was injured.

Both with Robson and Moeen i've not seen enough of them to pass judgement but they both seem to have made scores in the Latest EPP game in Aus so are both in country as it were, though I'm not sure Robson is available for the Test squad until the summer of 2014.

That said, Trott may well make a full recovery having had a break. Dont forget that, to my knowledge, with the exception of 3/4 games hes not missed a test since the Oval test in 2009. He'll be back for the Bears in the summer and it will be for him to let his bat do the talking in regards to selection to the test squad.

The end of 2014 might be optomistic, more likely part of a touring squad in 2015 touring party to the WI's (Post WC series?) and that summers tests against the aussies,

Who knows especially as we dont know the exact nature of his condition.

Posted by cloudmess on (November 28, 2013, 13:43 GMT)

Ed Smith is about right - Jonathan Trott should be neither condemned, nor canonised for what he has done. Rather we should keep in mind that sportsmen are still human beings, something which fans, commentators and even journalists seem to regularly forget. The other misapprehension is that mental stress is a new phenomenon in sport. By chance I came across an old Wisden match report, where a solid and heavy-scoring England batsman missed the last 3 tests of a home-match series because of "physical and nervous strain through playing too much cricket over the past 6 years" Like Trott, Ken Barrington was a calm and reassuring presence at the crease, while being complex and highly-strung off it.

Posted by Bala74 on (November 28, 2013, 13:13 GMT)

Writing about Trott's condition seems to be the flavour of the week. Whilst Ed's is one of the better articles written on this subject, I get this feeling that everyone is falling over themselves to get their say on the subject. Also, whilst everyone is showing a lot of concern for a fellow professional, no one is showing genuine concern for the subject. I feel that true concern would be have a self-imposed media blackout on this subject and give Trott all the space he needs to recover. Imagine what would go through Trott's mind if he reads this article (Im sure he will read it because thats the only thing discussed in cricket in the last few days). If it were me, it would be "Thanks, but I don't need anybody to speak up for me" I don't think the fans, at this time, need to know anything more than what was officially communicated by ECB and Andy Flower. Give the man some space!

Posted by CodandChips on (November 28, 2013, 11:28 GMT)

@YorkshirePudding while I believe Trott will play for Warwickshire, I doubt his performances will be enough to win selection due to anything other than sentiment. Unless of course, England choose to move Bell or Root up to 3 as a "long-term" option as opposed to selecting Moeen, or even Taylor (perhaps not so likely in tests as a number 3), or even Robson (but I don't think he's ready yet).

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (November 28, 2013, 5:59 GMT)

@Englishfan, I'm not so sure, I think we will see trott play for england again, as a number of cricketers around the wprld have taken a hiatus from the game, in a lot of cases its comes across to being Dropped, due to a severe lack of form, and often they go away and come back stronger.

It was a shame tresco didnt get to have time out before his public implosion, I suspect we will see Trott turning out for the Warks next year in the county season and if he plays well during the first half maybe a recall for the India series, either ODI or Test.

Posted by tickcric on (November 28, 2013, 4:49 GMT)

I have to say though the overwhelming reactions to this news is neither of criticism and nor congratulatory in essence. Most people are basically offering their support and sympathy towards Trott. Even some of those who are congratulating, perhaps mean it as an encouragement, more than anything else. I agree with you we know little about the case and so it is better not to form judgements about it. However, most people are in reality showing their sympathy towards a person suffering, perhaps at times, without realising they are also making some assumptions while doing so.

Posted by RajeevMenonRRD on (November 27, 2013, 22:09 GMT)

Nice one, Ed. Trott would have been the last person in my list to do this. Someone who comes across as quite relentless and unwavering, especially his impervious approach to the sledging on his rituals between deliveries. One may assume that there is more to this tale. Why assume at the first place. Hope he manages to bolster himself to play for England again. A real tough cookie on the field! Let's leave the "off-the-field" matters to him...

Posted by spindizzy on (November 27, 2013, 21:12 GMT)

Great article Ed, really nice to see a measured approach that doesn't jump to conclusions or beg the question. Well done also to Cricinfo for publishing it, more of the general media could learn from this approach.

Posted by pestonji on (November 27, 2013, 18:19 GMT)

Trott's departure has as much to do with the way cricket is structured rather than "mental health" issues. To play an endless merry go round of meaningless 5 day matches in far away lands is a formula for depression. In the US, concussions in football are now front and center after decades of denial. Depression is going to be cricket's central issue. The sport needs a a structure where each nation plays one three test series every calendar year leading up to a world cup every four years.

Posted by CodandChips on (November 27, 2013, 17:31 GMT)

Unfortunately I can't see him playing again for England. In tests we should go for Moeen at 3 and in ODIs Taylor (Taylor has a career List A average of over 50 and was averaging 80 in YB40- II assume he finished averaging approx 70. He can bat through and dominate (100 vs Hants the day KP retired from ODIs). Both are reasonably young and I think deserve a chance.

Posted by shane-oh on (November 27, 2013, 15:11 GMT)

@Paul Boizot - I think you will find that Kingman75 will struggle to define that phrase, given that is meaningless and is simply used to try and close down debate (much like the phrase 'PC'). Unless he is genuinely referring to people who try to do good in the world, but somehow trying to convince himself that is a bad thing.

@Cpt.Meanster - I hope that this episode illustrates a crucial point to people like yourself. The real point here is that nobody is to blame. The benefit to society of Trott's decision to go public, regardless of the nobility or otherwise of his motives, is to make the point that these types of conditions are part of the human fabric. Perhaps someone could have done something better, or some other person - but Trott himself has explained this is something he has managed his entire career. This is similar to a chronic knee injury that needs to managed, and the sooner we see it in that light the better for sport, and society in general.

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (November 27, 2013, 14:51 GMT)

I do disagree with one of Ed's points, and that is about his decision to return would have been his after a frank discussion with the team management.

If, as it seems, they were aware of the situation, it is likely they they have tried to support him as much as possible, but that hasnt worked and he needs to have time away from the game, thus the right decision was made in regards to him returning to the UK.

It also highlights the pressure these guys are under, not only on the field but also the merry go round of the international circuit, where as one cricketer pointed out they spend 200+ days a year living in Hotel rooms which while it sounds great, most people would be feeling the strain after 6 months let alone 3 years.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 14:37 GMT)

As a Saffer living down the road from where KP went to school, I have followed the carreers of the "non-indigenous" in the English side with much interest.

A feature of the British TV match commentary, is that players like Trott and KP have to deliver that 110% performance to extract any form of praise from the broadcasters. The slightest mistake is seized apon as evidence that they should never have made the team. The likes of Nick Knight and Bumbles Lloyd and Jeff Boycott allow great lattitude and sympathy to any of the locals' subject to a temporary lapse in form. Even Matt Prior, who grew up in the UK, has been subject to minute scrutiny.

This is a great article, examining human frailty in the harsh world of professional sport. I contend that, for the English Saffer faction, the pressure can be almost intollerable.

Posted by tickcric on (November 27, 2013, 14:13 GMT)

Ed, we all try to find meaning, sometimes even infuse meaning into what we see and do, and we all are eager to find the links and causes behind our actions. It matters little how much we know about the case, almost invariably we have an opinion with or without the all the necessary facts to know the truth. By asking us to stop assuming, and start interpreting based on facts you are asking of us an incredible amount of restraint! But we, reporters, readers, "social-networkers" have opinion(s) to give and purely based on facts it will be appear incomplete and unintersting. We need to make those connections, partly based on facts and partly based on our adequate or inadequate past knowledge and as and when we required do guesswork! If we hold our opinions till we know the necessary facts we might become wiser but perhaps there will be less to talk and write (in volume not in quality), lesser number of "likes", "shares" or comments. Almost as challenging as facing fast bowling I reckon! :)

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 13:58 GMT)

Good analysis Ed... Made me think a lot about some of the assumptions people made recently. I agree. Let Trott decide his current and the future. Why should anyone else jump the gun?

Posted by Unmesh_cric on (November 27, 2013, 13:48 GMT)

I just became a fan of Ed Smith's writing! I am sure a lot of people may go through stress related illness in their professional lives (be it software engineers or sports persons). Some may not even know that they are going through an "illness". These kind of things are always a bit vague, so we shouldn't jump to conclusions. How do you exactly measure the level of stress? By that I mean quantitatively. How do you measure a person's response to stress? As far as I know, human brain is not even half-understood...not even by the professional psycho-therapists.

Posted by tuffersmagic on (November 27, 2013, 13:41 GMT)

Superb article Ed, simplifies yet provokes thought at the same time. Wishing Trott all the best.

Posted by WalkingWicket11 on (November 27, 2013, 11:52 GMT)

@KoshCric That's not quite right. Shaun Tait (Aus) and Iain O'Brein (NZ) have also been through depression.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 11:35 GMT)

This article mirrors my sentiments, and I am sure it does so for a lot of people. We need to understand that Trott's problems are firstly, personal. The last thing he needs right now is the glare of publicity on him right now. We should probably just let him be, and the experts and near and dear ones will do as much they can do to get him back to health. He is a big loss to the England side, and they need him back as soon as possible, in the best shape possible.

Posted by Cpt.Meanster on (November 27, 2013, 11:29 GMT)

I feel the ECB are to be solely blamed here for Trott's condition. The ECB's mechanical approach to the grooming of England's cricketers is doing nothing in helping them. On the contrary, England's cricketers are now in a way fearful of retribution due to failure given their good run in test cricket for that last 4-5 years. This would mean extra pressure and burden, the likes often associated with English football (the 3 Lions anyone ?) during a major international tournament. England expects and sadly due that, the English cricketer is saddled with depression on top of sheer Ashes pressure hitting them from every angle. This is why Trott has become a victim. I personally admire him for standing up to his problem and addressing it openly instead of sticking around and performing poorly. In doing so, he has helped his team and country including his well wishers from the agony of watching him suffer on field. I wish him well and as always a brilliant piece from Ed Smith.

Posted by NumberXI on (November 27, 2013, 11:11 GMT)

This is an outstanding piece - it not only puts the ridicule of Trott in its right place, but it also correctly confronts some of the overly protective attitudes we have seen.

Posted by JCowPH on (November 27, 2013, 10:40 GMT)

It had to happen that the drivel would finally be punctuated by someone writing an intelligent article on this thorny subject. Well done Ed. Beautifully written. As you say, Trott has gone home and let's hope he is back soon. No more need be said.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (November 27, 2013, 10:39 GMT)

Another article from Ed that encourages proper reflection -- on this occasion the focus being not Jonathan Trott's withdrawl form the tour of Australia, but the range of reactions to it. These reactions sadden Ed and make me hesitant to express anything more than the most tentative of opinions as I must acknowledge my ignorance & avoid anything that smacks of a genuine understanding.The reactions that can be read hereabouts are, I'm sure, sincerely meant, but they are inevitably rushed responses that say nothing about Trott that is known or verifiable. They do, however, say much about their authors: their prejudices and personalities are there for all to read and deduce. And still they roll in, calling him 'a bully' or 'weak', for example. Please back off. Ask questions, just be compassionate in your small understanding. That's enough until Jonathan Trott himself cares to explain why he has taken the action that he has. We may need to wait patiently for that; it will not be soon.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 9:30 GMT)

@ Kingman75 - it seems pretty clear to me that Ed Smith is not saying Trott is weak - or strong. The article is subtly telling people to stop speculating and making assumptions. Also I don't understand a phrase that you used. What is a do gooder" please?

Posted by Hardy1 on (November 27, 2013, 9:07 GMT)

Fantastic article. The key point is to not make assumptions & leave him be to his own devices. My favourite part was "some people, though they never suffer from any form of clinical depression at all, nonetheless experience phases in their lives when they are unable to function in their professional capacities. They are no less deserving of our sympathy." Sometimes we all find it difficult to motivate ourselves but you can only imagine what it must be like for cricketers who are on long tours for so long. Of course there's plenty of perks too but everyone's different & we each have our distinct coping mechanisms which reached a breaking point for Trott. Having said that, I think it's important to also ask the question? Would he be coming back if say he had scored a double hundred in the last match?

Posted by Rawal on (November 27, 2013, 9:06 GMT)

An excellent article! The best on this issue!

Posted by InsideHedge on (November 27, 2013, 7:28 GMT)

Nailed it...................thought-provoking article.

Posted by   on (November 27, 2013, 7:14 GMT)

The more I read of Ed, the more am becoming a fan of him. one of the best if not THE best.

Posted by Mike22 on (November 27, 2013, 5:58 GMT)

Ed...Your article uses the word "we" alot. I would be interested to hear you expand on who you are referring to with the word "we". As usual, the masses are educated by mainstream media; very rarely does mainstream media use words in an attempt to describe your reality. I had an SMS conversation with a mate about the news. He said "Trott is going home with a stress related illness". My response was "That's no good, wouldn't wish that on anyone". A completely factual exchange. But not one that is unlikely to sell newspapers. If anyone is to take responsibility as the "we" of your article, it is not "we" the people. It is mainstream media and by extension, yourself. Without what the mainstream media have written, the subject matter of your article would be non-existent. "I" am not labelling Trott a hero. "I" am not making assumptions on the evidence or otherwise of Trott's mental health. "I" am not making Trott's issues into something that they aren't. "You" are.

Posted by Katey on (November 27, 2013, 5:30 GMT)

Yes, one should think first and talk later. Or not talk at all. I've been taken aback by some of the comments I've read, and even by some articles. So often they just give away the writer's ignorance of the tricky subject of depression by hasty judgments on one side or the other.

I don't think it's helpful to compare Trott to other cricketers. He is himself alone, and that's one of the tough things about counselling someone who has issues ... every case is unique, unlike physical medicine where one can diagnose and prescribe with confidence that the pills will work in most cases.

At times like this it's wise to say those three little words, "I don't know". When all the shouting and tumult has died, when the captains and the kings have departed, we don't know what anyone lese really experiences, do we?

Posted by vrn59 on (November 27, 2013, 4:59 GMT)

Good, timely article! I feel sorry for Trott: the media can really be a man's worst fear at times. The one that I noticed is that several fans have commented on articles related to Trott's condition with statements on how Sachin Tendulkar's mental resilience over 24 years should now be appreciated even more. I am an ardent Indian fan and supporter. However this behavior from my fellow Indian fans in condemnable. Firstly, this has nothing to do with Sachin. The man has retired with more than his share of media attention and this whole situation relates to Trott, England and maybe Australia, but nobody else. This is not a time to find some way or the other to praise Sachin. No one disputes that he is one of the all-time greats. Constantly and desperately going on about it is pointless and silly, and indeed comical. There is a lot more to cricket than one man, especially now that he has retired from the game.

Posted by Kingman75 on (November 27, 2013, 4:58 GMT)

I think ed is subtly saying that trott is weak and I agree. Stress is not mental illness or depression no matter what the do gooders say.

Posted by feodore on (November 27, 2013, 4:32 GMT)

Terrific article, Ed. This needed saying and took some b**** too.

I was getting tired of hearing about how Trott's decision was 'right' and great and brave and incredible. We simply don't know enough to make that claim! Maybe that's all true, maybe Trott is chickening out, or maybe he is making a decision that'll screw-up his career.

All we can say is that its his decision (and his alone) and hope that things work out for him in the long run.

Posted by KoshCric on (November 27, 2013, 4:15 GMT)

Completely agree with this article. People cannot suddenly come up and say that he had stress and wanted to go home. He himself has just said that he cannot give 100 percent to the team. There is no mention of mental illness or anything. By the way why is it that his happens to only English players? Dont players from other countries have this sort of stress? Or they just do not mention it during tours?

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