Scratching the surface

On the face of it, the arson attack by Mark Vermeulen on Zimbabwe's Cricket Academy looks fairly self explanatory. A former player, disgruntled at not being considered for selection, takes out his anger against a symbol of something that he feels has thwarted his ambitions. Simple. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The stark facts of the incident barely scratch the surface.
Most people will recall that last September Vermeulen was banned for ten years after an unsavoury fracas during a club match in Lancashire. That punishment was subsequently reduced on appeal to a three-year ban, with two of those suspended.

However, what became abundantly clear from the evidence given at the time was that Vermeulen was a very troubled young man. His behaviour at other times last summer had been eccentric and specialists consulted before the appeal hearing were clear that he needed treatment.

With hindsight, it is now apparent that Vermeulen has always had problems. Reports of bizarre behaviour go back as far as his early teenage years when he was banned from school cricket. One can only wonder how much the serious skull fracture he sustained at the hands of Irfan Pathan in early 2004 exacerbated his troubles. And that was his second serious head injury within 12 months.

A friend of his said that one moment he would be up, the next down in the dumps. His complete over-reaction to situations was the most outward sign of his fragile mental state. His lawyer claimed that his client was "suffering from a depressive illness which of course has a significant impact upon his behaviour". He returned to Zimbabwe where his mental state seemed to slide even further.

He arrived back confidently aiming to regain his place in the national side. And yet that buoyant optimism soon gave way to depression when he was ignored by selectors and officials. Within weeks he was in the depths of another low.

Earlier last month he was arrested after arriving at the gates of Robert Mugabe's fortified official residence in Harare demanding to speak to the president, who is the patron of Zimbabwe Cricket. Any local will admit that people have been shot for just being in the vicinity of the palace at the wrong time, underlining just how ill-advised Vermeulen's conduct was. He had also been undergoing treatment after a car crash.

On Monday, he was reportedly escorted from the South African embassy where he was trying to obtain a visa to travel to Johannesburg. The first fire happened that night, the second less than 24 hours later.

No one I have spoken to who knows Vermeulen doubts that he desperately needs psychiatric help. It seems there was no real thought process behind his attacks this week. As happened in Lancashire, he just hit out at the closest and most immediate target who be blamed for his situation. In this case it was the Zimbabwe cricket establishment.

Those looking for a real motive miss the point, although it was deeply disturbing to learn that a senior ZC official sought to capitalise on the destruction of the Academy by ranting that Vermeulen was a pawn of the whites and this highlighted why they should be barred from the game as a result. That is palpable rubbish, and he knows it. It is also ironic that the official railed against the destruction of ZC property when the board had contributed not one cent towards the building of the Academy in 1999. The building can be rebuilt. Vermeulen is not so easily mended.

What happened was nothing more than the illogical act of a very sick person. "This is a tragedy for cricket and a tragedy for a young man," one friend told me. The real tragedy will be if this is treated as a simple criminal act and he is sent to prison. In his state of mind, incarceration will be worst possible thing for Vermeulen and will serve no purpose. What he needs now is help.