Can a leading player also be a family man?

Don't marry a cricketer

Derek Pringle

Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe have had their troubles on the marriage front © Getty Images

Cricket and family life have never been easy bedfellows. A relationship which was at odds long before women were given the vote appears to have reached a crisis of late. Within the game, there has been a spate of well-publicised marital break-ups; outside it, the world is adapting to new rules of engagement between the sexes. The leading players are finding that cricket is making greater demands on them than ever before - and so are their wives.

Even though a successful Test career is now shorter than it used to be, at six to ten years, wives and girlfriends are no longer tolerating their lot as cricket widows and virtual single parents. A high-profile husband may have his allure but, once the cachet fades, many are swapping them for men who spend their weekends at home washing the car and mowing the lawn - or even cooking the lunch and bathing the kids.

The sheer time taken by the game, especially at weekends, has rarely been popular with families: up to ten hours a day, often seven days a week, if you include journeys and preparation time. Normal folk who receive an invitation to a christening from a professional cricketer have to look at it twice because it tends to be during the week. Add lengthy tours of three or four months to the load and it amounts to a huge strain, particularly on those who have come to expect more of husbands and fathers than previous generations.

The problems appear both generational and cultural, with the majority of divorces occurring in England, though a quick check reveals that nowhere is immune. India, to pick a country with different social mores, has its marital casualties: before he was ever accused of match-fixing, Mohammad Azharuddin caused a scandal by walking out of an arranged marriage and settling down with a Bollywood actress. Javagal Srinath's marriage broke up and Sourav Ganguly's touched breaking point when he was photographed at a temple with another film star. Other cricketers caught in the full glare of Indian celebrity have been tempted, though many feel it is a honey-trap used by underworld figures hoping to blackmail players into fixing matches.

The absenteeism is felt far more in England, where little more than a few weeks separate the hectic six-month home season and the moment wives wave their husbands off on tour in October. It would not be sanctioned now, but on the 1982-83 tour of Australia and New Zealand, Chris Tavaré, who had recently married, brought his wife Vanessa along for the entire 148-day trip. What none of the team knew at the time was that Vanessa had phobias about flying and heights, both of which required heavy sedation. With 23 flights and most of the hotels set in downtown skyscrapers, a lot of sedative was needed. If Tavaré was unhappy he never showed it. It wasn't until the Fourth Test in Melbourne that he played his first shot in anger.

Phil Tufnell's last entry in his 1997- 98 West Indies tour diary tells of arriving back at Heathrow to be greeted by his three-year-old daughter waving and shouting: 'Bye-bye, Daddy' © Getty Images

Once a relationship becomes strained, cricket rarely seems able to offer a compromise. Recently, Darren Gough, Graham Thorpe, Mark Butcher and Dominic Cork have all seen their marriages break up while on England duty. In Thorpe's case, the public saw it too: he flew home from India at the beginning of a Test match in an attempt to save his marriage, appeared on his doorstep in Surrey to talk frankly about it, and later played for England at Lord's when clearly not himself during a custody battle over his two small children. He retired from one-day internationals with the World Cup looming to spend more time with the children, giving up a sizeable income as a result.

Others are doing the sums, and players who spent last winter with both the Test and one-day sides in Australia and the World Cup in South Africa did not see their own beds for 140 nights. Missing the kids growing up is a regret many cricketers cite as a downside of their job, but it is one that most do little about. On the same 1982-83 tour as the Tavarés, the England team were sponsored by JVC. Getting some of their product was part of the deal; while most of the players chose hi-fi, Derek Randall picked a fussy-looking video camera. He said it was "for the missus", so she could film the kids growing up for him

Keith Fletcher's playing career with Essex and England lasted more than 20 years from tentative newcomer to wise old guru. He was married throughout, and still is, to Sue, and they have two grown-up daughters, Sarah and Tara. Sue doesn't feel she or the children suffered unduly as a result of his absence. "I certainly don't look back with resentment, and the girls grew up thinking it was the norm," she says. "I don't feel it has affected them in any way and they both have a great relationship with their father."

An itinerant father can confuse young children. In his diary of the 1997- 98 West Indies tour, Phil Tufnell's last entry tells of arriving back at Heathrow to be greeted by his three-year-old daughter Poppy waving and shouting: "Bye-bye, Daddy."

Being away for long periods does not just affect wives and children. Players spending half their year in hotel rooms become lonely and frustrated. When that happens, temptation to stray can be hard to resist and public disclosures of affairs have, in some cases, precipitated the split. Fame has always been a potent aphrodisiac.

In England, marital break-up among cricketers has increased steadily, a trend in step with a wider society that has seen the divorce rate treble in a generation. Research recently commissioned by the Lord Chancellor's department found many of today's generation "selfishly pursue careers and other interests at the expense of marriage or long-term relationships". Cricketers, like most professional sportsmen, have probably just been selfish for longer. Before the 1990s, the situation was largely tolerated, though not by Phillip DeFreitas's first wife, who made it clear she considered her own career far more important - thanks to its relative longevity - then her spouse's. These days, wives with children expect husbands to contribute more than a pay packet. Many cricketers struggle to deliver, and not only because of their absence. Cricket dressing-rooms act as quasi-family units, though ones where responsibility, beyond the immediate task of scoring runs or taking wickets, is often lacking. The laddish bonhomie and sporting drama that come with the job do not prepare players for the raw emotions of life. But while an upset on the pitch can be sorted in the nets or by having a chat with the coach, a failing relationship with a loved one is not so easily remedied, especially when the player is a few time zones away.

The fact that players now move county more frequently than in the past means that traditional support networks for wives, such as aunts and grandmothers, may no longer be within easy reach. Where children are settled at school, many simply refuse to move, leaving players to live like the blokes in Men Behaving Badly for virtually the whole season. Part of the problem stems, as one wife of a well-known player confirms, from the women not thinking the whole deal through before they settle down with a professional cricketer. Often they meet their man before he has been picked for international duty. Only when the merry-go-round of touring meets the treadmill of county cricket does the antisocial nature of the whole business hit them.

Sourav Ganguly: much to ponder apart from cricket © Getty Images

There is a distinct generation gap. Sue Fletcher, a stoic by nature, recalls the England wives of the late 1960s and early 70s being a close-knit group that was more like a self-help collective than a bunch of disillusioned housewives. "We knew what the form was about looking after the kids; our husbands made that clear from day one," she says. "When they were on tour, and they were long tours in those days, the wives used to visit each other back in England. It helped that we all got on well and had children roughly the same age. But we rallied round and got on with it because that's how it was."

In those days, families were allowed to tour but were not encouraged. As at the gentlemen's clubs of the time, women were seen as a distraction and rather too civilising for cricketers sent to win important battles on foreign soil. The Test and County Cricket Board used to control visits, which players had to pay for, including flights and hotel rooms.

"I remember going to visit Keith on tour and being allowed to spend 21 nights with him," Sue Fletcher says. "We had to pay every penny and often it took up the entire tour fee so you'd make nothing. Because of those financial constraints, wives on tour, especially with kids in tow, were the exception rather than the rule."

These days, there are still limits, but they are less strict. Providing a player is abroad for more than 60 days, the England and Wales Cricket Board allow 30 days' family provision for players who are in both the Test and one-day sides and 16 for those in one or the other. The board also pay for return flights (in economy) for wives and children under 18, all accommodation, some internal travel and a modest daily meal allowance.

The timing of visits is still controlled and has to be agreed in advance by the captain and coach. Usually the period falls around Christmas and New Year, just as the Test series is coming to a climax, a situation that can add to the tension, especially when families come to realise that Daddy is not on holiday too.

Occasionally, special cases are allowed. Not wanting to miss the birth of his second child, Nasser Hussain settled his wife Karen and toddler Jacob in Perth just before the start of the 2002-03 tour of Australia, a first for an England captain. He flew out ahead of the team and was given a few days off after the First Test so he could be there for the birth, which was even timed to fit into his schedule: as he chivalrously put it in his newspaper column, "we had her induced". This prompted much huffing and puffing from the old guard, led by Ray Illingworth, who accused Hussain of leaving a sinking ship. Put it down to the David Beckham effect if you like, but such instances are likely to rise, along with the costs, as the board try to keep players and their wives happy.

Family visits, even when the cost to players is minimal, are often fraught. Denise Fraser, wife of Angus, was one of the generation of England wives after Sue Fletcher. They have been together since before Fraser became an England regular, fitness permitting, in 1989. They had a son, Alexander, in 1993, a daughter, Bethan, in 1995, and got married in 1996. Denise had mixed feelings about her times on tour. "Before the children were born, trips to the West Indies were great fun, especially when players like David Gower and Allan Lamb were about. But in my experience, we were not always made to feel welcome and, although the wives and kids often lifted morale when we arrived, we also added to the stress."

Denise Fraser remembers the 1995-96 tour of South Africa as particularly blighted. England's tour party grew from 20 to over 70 as families arrived for Christmas in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. The team manager, Illingworth, was so incensed by the chaos that he blamed it for England's defeat in the series - the Fifth Test, at Newlands, was the only one with a result.

Chris Tavare's wife had a harrowing tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1982-83 © Getty Images

"It was disastrous," Denise Fraser says. "We stayed in a city-centre hotel that had no facilities for the kids, and players had to give up their seats for us on the team bus. We felt unwelcome, especially when Illingworth blamed us for the defeat, which was unfair. I remember England winning in both Barbados and Melbourne just after the wives had come out."

According to Denise Fraser, the situation could have been avoided with a bit of foresight and planning. The board tacitly acknowledged as much after that tour, when they began to send Medha Laud, the international teams administrator and one of their most senior women employees, ahead of the team, to vet hotels for their suitability.

Families on tour need to be looked after. South Africa make their team bus available to ferry them to and from the game, though at different times from the players, or to the shops or sights. Bob Woolmer, South Africa's coach from 1994 to 1999, got the idea from Kerry Packer's World Series in the 1970s, where the wives were given a manager who organised shopping trips and sightseeing for them. "Players didn't have to worry about whether the wife was being looked after or not and could get on with playing cricket," Woolmer says. "You'd then meet up in the evening for supper like couples leading normal lives. It's simple and effective, but few teams bother."

South Africa's enlightened approach extends further, and players have been allowed to miss tours to spend time with their families. Jonty Rhodes skipped the tour of India in 2000, with the board's blessing, to be present at the birth of his first child - the first recorded case of a cricketer being given more than a day or two's paternity leave. In the past, leading England players would pick and choose, as Graham Gooch did when he missed the 1986-87 Ashes tour and half the next winter, but that is almost unheard-of now; after Alec Stewart, who chose not to tour India in 2001-02, mentioned that it would be nice to be around for the Christmas shopping, he faced criticism from the England management. Competition for places is keener and, Bangladesh apart, there are no longer opponents who allow you to get away with fielding a sub-strength side.

Australia's home series are much like a succession of tours, with every game bar one a flight - and maybe a time zone or two - away. And so the Australian board are proactive in getting the families involved. Wives and kids are always invited to the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, where they are put up in apartment-style suites with the players. When the men go overseas, there is usually a dedicated period of two weeks when their other halves can visit, but if a wife wants to come away for the entire trip, she can. On the 2001 Ashes tour, Steve Waugh rented a flat in London for the summer as a base for his wife Lynette, then pregnant, and their two children. Waugh warmed up for the First Test by taking them all over to Disneyland Paris for a few days.

The paradox of all the time away from home is that the problems can start when it finishes. A player comes off an arduous tour, expecting to be greeted like a conquering king (or a defeated one), and may find that he no longer fits into the rhythms of home life. "You become so used to their absence," Denise Fraser says, "that Angus would upset my routines when he got back. Suddenly there is another body in the equation and you have to get used to living together again.

"Let's face it, most players are a selfish breed who, if not too tired to help out around the house, bring their problems home with them. They are used to getting everything put on a plate and there were times when I couldn't wait to get him on his way again." Angus is now doing it all over again as cricket correspondent of The Independent. "He seems to be away more than ever."

Top-level sport is accompanied by self-analysis and narcissism, which do not lend themselves to the give-and-take required in most long-term relationships. The endless insecurity tends to propel most cricketers up the aisle by their early twenties, before life skills have been acquired. Some, like Imran Khan, David Gower and Mike Atherton, wait until their careers are all but over before starting a family, but they are unusual.

Darren Gough, who moved out of the family home last year into a bachelor pad in Milton Keynes, said he felt playing cricket for England was becoming a single man's game. Given that the international programme has doubled in the last decade, he may be right, but it would be sad if the game's player-power were further compromised. The hike in matches has come at the behest of television, which bankrolls the modern game. Until that is addressed, something the ICC has yet to do despite the pleas of senior Test captains like Nasser Hussain and Steve Waugh, cricket's biggest battle will be on the home front.

Derek Pringle, now with the Daily Telegraph, played for England between 1982 and 1992. He is unmarried.

Cricket and marriage: a few glimpses

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