England in West Indies 2015 April 11, 2015

Trott past breaking point, ready for next Test

We do not know if Jonathan Trott will return as the rock of England's batting or the fragile figure from Brisbane - but in one sense it does not matter

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ESPNcricinfo analyst Colin Croft previews the Test series between West Indies and England

There's an old joke about a man looking back on his life.

"I taught a hundred children to read, but do they call me Jon the teacher?" he says to himself.

"I built a hundred houses for the people of the village, but do they call me Jon the homebuilder?

"And I wrote a thousand poems, but do they call me Jon the poet?

"But I shag one sheep..."

Jonathan Trott could identify with such a story. Not because of any dubious record of animal husbandry - he has, by all accounts, never worried a sheep in his life - but because five years of career excellence seems to have been overshadowed by one bad half hour.

Trott scored a century on Test debut in 2009. He was the ICC's world player of the year in 2011. He averages 51.25 in ODIs - 20% more than any England batsman to have played more than 20 such games - and, during the period from May 2010 to August 2011, when England went to No. 1 in the Test rankings, he scored five Test centuries and averaged 70.42. Andrew Strauss called him his "most reassuring" player.

But all many seem to remember is the broken man who left the Ashes tour after the first Test at Brisbane at the end of 2013. All of a sudden, England's rock was portrayed as a man of straw. Memories are short. Judgements are harsh.

The simplistic explanation was that Trott was rattled by the pace of Mitchell Johnson. But that ignores Trott's long-term record against him. Johnson was a member of the attack when Trott made that debut century in 2009. Trott averages 68.25 in the six Tests he has played against Australia sides containing Johnson.

Equally, in the ODI series of 2011, on the fastest pitches Trott has encountered in his career to date, he averaged 62.50 against an attack including Johnson, Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Doug Bollinger; surely one of the quickest quartets assembled by Australia.

So the Johnson explanation looks simplistic. Johnson was the catalyst, not the cause.

The truth is, Trott had a breakdown. A combination of too much cricket, too much anxiety and too much time away from home combined to distort his perspective. He stopped sleeping. He stopped relaxing. He compensated with more training. Eventually he buckled.

Those who know him best saw it starting in July 2013. Hugely disappointed by failure to win the Champions Trophy - England may never have a better chance; Trott will certainly not have a better chance to win it on his home ground of Edgbaston - England were involved in an Ashes series only a couple of weeks later.

Trott spent the intervening period training. Instead of going into the series confident in his long-term Ashes reputation - he had a Test average of 86.42 against Australia before the English summer of 2013 - he somehow found a way to make it a burden. "I averaged 90 against them," he said a little while ago. "So I went into games thinking 'I have to score at least 180 in this match or I've failed.'"

Trott flew home from Australia to be greeted by his delighted daughter with the words: "Is Daddy staying the night?"

His own record had become daunting to him. A modest Ashes series, by his standards, followed: he reached 40 five times in 10 innings, but never went on to score more than 59 as his famed powers of concentration waned to the extent that he claims he never saw the delivery from Nathan Lyon that dismissed him in Durham.

He was offered the chance to miss the subsequent ODI series but he only knew one way to react to challenges: to work harder. So he forced his way through training session, after training session, not realising that each one only compounded the problem. He would have been better served lying on a beach.

His problems exposed by Johnson in that ODI series, he abandoned plans for a holiday and instead asked Ashley Giles, his old friend and England's limited-overs coach, to fire bouncers at his head for hours on end from the bowling machine before departing for Australia.

He made an early century on that tour but dismissed its worth - "ordinary bowling," he grunted at the time - before going into the Brisbane Test.

From the moment he walked out to bat it was clear there was something wrong. Whereas he had once been calm, he was now skittish and jittery. Ridiculously, he walked down the wicket to Johnson. The execution was swift. The problem could be masked no more.

So what happened? "It wasn't so much Brisbane, it was more of a lead up to it," Trott says now. "The whole months leading up to it, even in England, were really tough and Brisbane was the culmination. A breaking point.

"It was a culmination of a lot of cricket and just having an imbalanced perspective of what I needed to do to succeed. I set myself unrealistically high expectations that I couldn't achieve. It just started building.

"Cricket is virtually 12 months a year so if something builds up and is not kept in check it can overtake everything else."

The England management gave Trott every option. They said he could stay with the team and play the second Test - he had earned the right to another chance - he could stay and miss the Test, or he could go home. He chose home not so much to escape, though that was probably a factor, but because he didn't want to let down the team he had rescued so many times. He knew he was of no further use to them.

Andy Flower - against whom Trott has not a bad word - broke down in tears when he announced the news to the dressing room. Flower knew this was the end. He knew Trott and Graeme Swann were broken. He knew Alastair Cook was struggling. He knew that the team he built to be one of the best in England's history was dismantling. He knew his era was over.

Meanwhile, Trott flew home. Greeted at the door by his wife and delighted daughter, the first words she asked were: "Is Daddy staying the night?"

We ask an awful lot of our cricketers

For a while the clouds parted. Life returned to something approaching normality and the prospect of cricket - county cricket, at least - did not seem so daunting.

But then, in the first Championship match of the 2014 season, it became clear the issue had not been resolved. Reminded of his responsibility to the Warwickshire team by a first innings in which he top-scored with 37 out of a total of just 87, he then dropped a couple of catches and looked horribly uncomfortable against the Chris Jordan short ball. At one stage he was struck on the helmet by the far from express Steve Magoffin. He concluded he was a burden to the team and announced his decision to take a further break from the game.

It was the lowest point. He talked of finding the game "degrading". Retirement wasn't just considered, it seemed the only option. But with the support of friends and family, of Warwickshire and, after a less than perfect start, the ECB, Trott found the help he deserved.

"We had played the Ashes and then the one-dayers," he says of 2013. "I had two weeks off and I spent that training every day then went to Australia and had three days off in a month building up to the first Test. It was an unbalanced view of the game.

"I did a bit of stuff with a psychologist when I got home. And then, a couple of weeks later, I thought I could play cricket again and it was just a case of burnout. We came to the conclusion it was that.

"And then I went back and I hadn't played cricket and I still had the same problems. So I had to seek advice elsewhere and luckily Steve and I have a good relationship."

Breaking point: Trott's last Test in Brisbane saw him twice dismissed by Mitchell Johnson © Getty Images

"Steve" is Dr Steven Peters, the psychiatrist who has worked with Olympic cyclists Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan and England footballer Steven Gerrard. He helped Trott understand his issues and provided a mechanism for coping.

Meanwhile, well-known figures from the sporting world - figures known for their apparent calm and equanimity - contacted Trott to let them know they had endured similar experiences. The difference was, they had been given the time to recover away from the public glare. England's schedule does not allow that.

He returned to the Warwickshire team later that summer and, against the same Sussex attack including Jordan and Magoffin, made a century. The floodgates opened: runs flowed in List A and first-class cricket. He was asked to go on the Lions tour and compiled a match-saving double-century against South Africa A. The prospect of a 50th Test cap - Brisbane was his 49th - suddenly seems real.

The England management's views on his problem - or perceived problem - against the short ball have been demonstrated by the fact that they are considering putting him back in the side as an opening batsman. Both parties know he will be peppered by short balls. They feel he can cope. Johnson was hardly the first fast bowler to pitch short to him.

But there is a legitimate question to ask now about which Trott will turn up in the Caribbean: the rock of England's batting or the fragile figure from Brisbane.

Is he the player he once was? Nobody knows for sure. No player comes with a guarantee. Of course there is an element of risk in his selection.

Is he the man he once was? No, no. He's far better. His world has been widened. His eyes opened. His experience has taught him empathy and appreciation. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, he has a second child on the way and knows, that with a healthy, happy family and the honour of having represented his country with distinction, he is, already, a blessed man.

There is a certain type of alpha male - the sort who, perhaps, has never faltered, never failed, never known doubt or weakness - who insists that Trott was "soft" for leaving the Ashes tour and, having done so, should never be considered for selection again.

Perhaps Trott once belonged in that category. Perhaps Trott, who was brought up in that no-nonsense South African culture, who was steeped in the macho world of sports' dressing rooms, whose identify was built upon the image of the tough sportsman, would once have thought that way. Hence the somewhat clumsy use of the phrase "I'm not crazy" in an early interview upon returning from the Ashes. This whole experience has been a mysterious journey for Trott as much as it has for anyone else.

For the rest of us, those of us who have known fear and weakness and frailty, it is not so hard to muster respect and goodwill for a fairly simple man who has been confronted with a challenge beyond his limits. Who has wrestled his demons and his confusion. Who has, to this point, at least, prevailed.

"The world breaks everyone," Hemingway wrote, "and afterward many are strong in the broken places."

For Trott to put himself back in the firing line, to be prepared to fail, to risk reputation once again - there is something heroic in that. Fail or flourish in the coming months, Trott has already won his battle.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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