I remember a press conference in Christchurch during India's tour of New Zealand in 1989-90. Bishan Bedi, the manager, was seeking to enlighten the media after a poor performance. "Some of our players committed suicide out there today," he said. "And if some of them want to go out and commit suicide tonight, I won't stop them."
"Suicide" is a word that is used loosely in cricket. You play a suicidal shot when you reach out to play outside the off stump and the wicketkeeper catches the resultant snick; you are run out attempting a suicidal run; you commit suicide when you bowl badly to Sachin Tendulkar; and the short-leg fielder is in suicide position. If new research is to be believed, all this is no coincidence.
Do cricketers face greater stress and pressure than other sportsmen? A single error can swing matters and determine careers, according to Tim Noakes, director of Bioenergenetics at the Exercise Research Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The designation is impressive, and when he says "Tension and psychological stress in cricket are greater than in most other sports," it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Especially when he says that findings show the suicide-rate among professional cricketers around the world is higher than in any other sport.
Only superficially is cricket a team game. It is an individual game, and a lonely one. The player has to work out his own solutions (he may borrow from history) in his playing days, and after retirement train himself not to dwell on the past too much. A Don Bradman or a Sunil Gavaskar might be recognised and mobbed decades after retirement, but the vast majority are filed away in the pigeonholes of history, to be taken out only rarely, if at all.
David Frith's By His Own Hand is a study of some 80 cricketers who committed suicide, and few write with his breadth of vision and depth of knowledge. It is the story of Fred Bull, a chucker who tied a seven-pound stone around his neck and sat down, waiting for the sea to drown him; of better known players like the South African great Aubrey Faulkner; of Jack Iverson; of Sid Barnes and Jim Burke. It is about Baqa Jilani, who played a Test match for India because he insulted CK Nayudu at the breakfast table and was rewarded thus by the captain, The Maharajah of Vizianagram, (on the other hand, Jilani could possibly have had an epileptic fit and fallen from the balcony of his house in Jalandhar).
It is about players who, in the words of a Lancashire professional, "couldn't accept that part of their lives was over". The part which included playing and travelling and being interviewed and mobbed, and being national heroes.
What do you do when your skills fade, when the spirit continues to be willing but the flesh can't keep up? Today the choices are wider. Great cricketers are paid to be mediocre commentators, to write for newspapers, and if they shave twice a day, to appear on television. There is a future in public relations, in being a brand ambassador, in administration, umpiring, running coaching camps, or even sitting back and living on the money made from the game. It wasn't always thus.
Jim Burke, the Australian, sunny, popular, and one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year in 1957, shot himself owing to a combination of miseries, not the least of which was apprehension over some investments he had made. Soon after his death, however, things changed around, and he would have made a small fortune on his "bad" investments.
Frith's book takes us a step or two beyond the act of suicide. It is as much about those who came to the verge of suicide but pulled back - like Richard Hadlee, and Peter Roebuck (who has written a sensitive foreword to the book).
A cricketer suspected of being Jack the Ripper killed himself, as did another who thought he had AIDS. As Roebuck says, "Cricketers are vulnerable because the game attracts sensitive men of aesthetic temperament, the very men who are, in the end, least well served by it." There is poetry in that theory, but it is rejected by Frith, who writes about flawed characters who just happen to play cricket. This is an unusual book about unusual people written with passion and a wealth of information by one of the game's most important historians.
By His Own Hand: A Study of Cricket's Suicides
by David Frith
Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1990