April 24, 2014

Anxiety and torment

Cricket - batting specifically - defines Jonathan Trott, which makes his continued suffering all the more painful

Most English cricketers find solace in the bar, or some such place. Only a few like Trott head for the nets © AFP

At the end of November last year, Martin Crowe wrote a fascinating piece on ESPNcricinfo that was titled "The masks we wear". His response to Jonathan Trott's sudden retreat from Brisbane explained how cricketers rarely reveal themselves, choosing instead to hide behind a mask that gives the opposition as little as possible from which to feed. Vulnerability is the sportsman's greatest enemy; insecurity is not far behind.

Few cricketers are all that they seem. Most suffer from self-doubt and many from self-pity. Great swathes of them feel misunderstood or misrepresented and just about all fear failure above everything. Cricket strips a man to the bone. The cruelty and the humiliation know no bounds. As television expands its intrusion to practice sessions, dressing rooms and flash interviews (those conducted pitchside with breathless players whose sweat still drips) so introspection takes over. The scrutiny is relentless and dangerous.

Crowe admitted that cancer had forced him to throw away the mask. It may have been that a life led behind the mask had encouraged the cancer, for it is a stressful place. Now free, and so much safer than a year ago, he has found fulfilment in a wonderful family and a burgeoning career as a writer about the game he had forgotten how to love. Cricket took Crowe to hell and back. His recovery is our fortune because now we read him with an ever-greater expectation and, even on those rare occasions we do not agree, we cannot help but be provoked.

The news that Trott is to move away from the game once more is alarming. It tells the truth about his illness, which can be explained in a number of ways but is essentially one of anxiety and torment. We thought - and by we, I mean table conversation in and around the game - that he was exhausted and exposed but we figured that rest and a long think about a more effective technique against fast bowling would bring him back. We were wrong. He is in trouble and may be lost to the game. Crowe suspected as much five months ago but kept his counsel. To a degree, Crowe had been there, which was how he knew.

In English terms, Trott is unusual. There is something of Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch in his determination at the wicket and his slavery to preparation. Though both Boycott and Gooch had a touch more flamboyance about them than Trott, they had the same tendency towards introspection and certainly the same view on pragmatism. Thus, what hurts most is the inability to work something out and the forensic examination that comes with it. Example: for a time Boycott could not handle left-arm swing bowling and fell to the modest efforts of Ekky Solkar, the Indian. Example: in 1989 Gooch was utterly undone by Terry Alderman, a fine outswing bowler but no Malcolm Marshall - who Gooch played very well incidentally. Trott's bete noir was Mitchell Johnson. Or was it? Perhaps Trott is simply the victim of the demands he makes of himself.

Boycott fell foul of his own inner demons when he retreated from England colours for the three-year period from 1974 to 1977. His initial grumble was the appointment of Mike Denness as captain - rather than himself, one supposes - but things festered after Denness had gone, and it took a persuasive Tony Greig to finally make him reconsider. Gooch had a hangdog look about him during many periods of an international career that did not truly justify its talent until his later years. Captaincy brought Gooch the security he craved and from it came glorious Indian summers.

Trott's bete noir was Mitchell Johnson. Or was it? Perhaps Trott is simply the victim of the demands he makes of himself

Most English cricketers find solace in the bar, or some such place. Only a few head for the nets. The English play too much, there are too many of them playing and the professional system encourages them to cling on, beyond hope. Trott is one for the nets but this dedication served him less well than he knew. In fact, the insularity drove him under. It is an addiction and every bit as damaging as those that are better known. The game had grabbed him and would not let go. The suffering was there but not obviously evident. Because the mask was on.

Behind it is a man who, for the moment at least, has lost himself. Cricket - batting specifically - defines Trott, which makes his suffering all the more painful. Usually this happens after a player retires from the game and finds himself bereft of direction and support. Professional cricket wraps its arms around players and without it, many feel a chill wind.

Years ago, 23 of them I think, Tim Tremlett (father of Chris but a fine county cricketer in his own right and by then, the Hampshire coach) suggested to the club's committee that some of the players would benefit from a sports psychologist. This was greeted with suspicion, even a little disdain by former players who thought the current crop needed to toughen up. I was captain at the time and found the conversation excruciating. Partly, I felt it was my job to know the players better and guide them through the fields of insecurity. Partly, I was shocked at the lack of empathy from members of the committee. Unsurprisingly, Tremlett's suggestion was knocked back.

Not long after, I read Pat Barker's remarkable book Regeneration, one of a trilogy that examines the mental fallout from the First World War and, in particular, Siegfried Sassoon's challenge as a conscientious objector. Sassoon is attended by the psychiatrist Dr Rivers, whose main task is to return the disturbed soldiers to the front. The insanity of it all is both shocking and revealing. Of course, cricket is not war but mental health is a challenging enough issue at every level and not to be regarded lightly. These days, the Professional Cricketers Association in England does wonderful work in counselling players and helping them on their way in the life after cricket. For sure, Trott is receiving help.

I don't know him well but I know him a bit - the odd drink, dinner once, a lift in his car, shared charity events, many interviews, a few off-the-record chats on the pitch before a day's play. He is an unusual character, quirky you might say, immensely likeable, with a waspish sense of humour and a surprising perspective on the big picture. His sadness is everyone's sadness right now. Cricket misses the man and his Ken Barrington-like "thou shalt not pass" approach to the game.

Of course, cricketers are lucky a) to have been born with such a gift and b) to make a living from it. But that does not mean we should take them for granted. Instead, we should watch out for them, understanding that the game takes a heavy toll. These are the best years of a young person's life and they are soon gone. Let us hope that Trott finds some peace and, from it, some more time at the crease yet.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK