'Cricket is a game of failure' - Stuart Meaker on coping with anxiety, divorce and lockdown

Seamer once on the fast-track for England reveals his mental health battles

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Stuart Meaker says the highs and lows of cricket are the most challenging part of the game  •  Getty Images

Stuart Meaker says the highs and lows of cricket are the most challenging part of the game  •  Getty Images

When Stuart Meaker went through a divorce two years ago, he started speaking to a therapist. Realising there's no quick fix when mental health issues arise, he has continued those sessions every couple of weeks, well beyond the initial three months or so that seems standard when someone seeks help through a difficult life event.
In that time, Meaker, the Sussex seamer who was once on the fast-track to England honours, has learnt a lot about quick fixes.
"What a lot of people do when they end up going through difficult life circumstances or relationship break-ups is they throw themselves wholeheartedly into their job and their career, their cricket, whatever it is, because it's a great means of distraction," Meaker tells ESPNcricinfo.
"Unfortunately mine wasn't. I was emotionally all over the place. I ended up going out too much, not training as hard as I could or should have done. I was chasing after girls, because I thought, 'well at least it will give me a self-esteem boost'. It's a quick fix of an evening, but it's not wholly fulfilling in who you are."
That's where, he says, speaking to a mental health professional helped.
"I guess what it all boils down to is actually learning to just be okay and comfortable with myself and my own company," Meaker says. "I think a therapist's role is to get someone to a place where they're just okay and comfortable with themselves."
That experience confirmed something that Meaker knew existed, even if he hadn't put a name to it.
Self-doubt, insecurity and fear of failure, fuelled by the delicate balance between in-form and out-of-favour which is such a prominent part of an elite cricketer's life, manifested itself in anxiety. For Meaker, his ability to sleep was affected, not ideal for anyone let alone a fast bowler trying to push their body - and mind - to some imposing limits.
"I can get terribly anxious, usually specifically revolving around cricket," Meaker says. "Because you want to do well and you're desperate to prove yourself even after you've been playing the game for 14 years.
"When you've gone through good times and bad times and you're changing clubs and all that stuff you still want to do well and the problem is that turns on your brain and it just won't shut off.
"You're being bombarded by, 'What if I don't do well?' or 'I want to do well.' You keep thinking about the game, you overthink everything. You don't stay in the moment, you're thinking about tomorrow and the next day."
Meaker says he has carried that type of worry through his career. Now he is working on ways to combat it.
"I've played countless games of cricket, nothing's going to be unexpected rocking up the next day and playing," he says. "So why is it that I'm constantly overthinking it and worrying about how it's going to go?
"You're constantly questioning whether you should still be playing and whether you deserve to be there. Whether you can keep pushing yourself through."
Meaker was at one time regarded as the fastest bowler in England, clocked at 95mph during ECB trials at Loughborough.
After playing two ODIs in India in 2011 he travelled back there as an uncapped member of England's victorious Test squad the following year. Two T20I matches against India immediately after that Test series remain his last international appearances.
Meaker toured New Zealand with England in 2013, but injury problems were beginning to mount and he underwent knee and shoulder surgery.
He played for England Lions during the winter of 2016-17 but then injuries and competition for places at Surrey - the club he had joined as a 13-year-old and represented at senior level from 2008 - meant he featured in just one Championship match across 2018 and 2019.
"There's days where you feel like, 'I could play this game forever,' and then there's days you're like, 'I just don't know if I can face going in today'"
Stuart Meaker
At the beginning of last year, about to turn 31, Meaker sought and was granted a release from Surrey with a year remaining on his contract and joined Sussex in a bid to revive his career.
That remains a work in progress after three appearances in the Bob Willis Trophy, yielding two wickets, and five wickets so far this Championship season.
"Cricket is a game of failure and it aids that worry," Meaker says. "You might be in the best form of your life, you could get an unplayable ball the next day and that's that.
"It's a really difficult one for people who do battle with it when they're not going so well because they're worrying about controlling things that ultimately cannot be controlled."
So how is he doing now? Meaker doesn't pretend, admitting that he still has "ups and downs", which is what makes focusing on his mental health an ongoing proposition rather than something that can be fixed in a hurry.
"There's days where you feel like, 'I could play this game forever,' and then there's days you're like, 'I just don't know if I can face going in today,' he says. "You've got to find coping strategies for that.
"For me, that is the hardest bit, the constant up and down. When people are blowing hot in cricket, it's the greatest thing to be because you don't have to worry.
"It's when you're not blowing so hot, and those in-between times when you've busted your gut during the winter, trained harder than you've ever trained, and you're just not quite getting the results that you're probably wanting.
"I could end up playing one more game and suddenly I take 10-for and everything's hunky dory, 'I'm going to play this game for the next five to 10 years.' That's the battle you're constantly going through."
Meaker believes a trigger for the anxiety some cricketers - and no doubt other elite athletes - feel about their performance is that their success on the sporting field is inextricably linked to their identity. Having played and excelled from a very young age, they feel they have always been known as "Stuart the cricketer", as he puts it.
"Even though it's just something that you do, it's not who you are, your identity and how you go about speaking to people and interacting with people, that becomes who you are, because it's how everyone knows you," he says.
"When you're worried about how your game's going and how it's not going so well, that can have a huge impact on it and your self-esteem and how you potentially transition outside of the game. What happens when you're no longer Stuart the cricketer?"
Cricket has made inroads to normalise discussion about mental health and treat it as an area to be developed just as physical skills are nurtured. The ECB is in the process of recruiting someone to look after players' mental wellbeing amid concerns over the effects of spending extended periods in biosecure bubbles, while some teams already have dedicated structures in place to ensure mental health is a focus.
The Professional Cricketers' Association, working with the Professional Cricketers' Trust, provides mental health support, education programmes and advice for players to prepare for life beyond cricket.
But in elite sport, there remains a perception - often among those suffering from mental health problems as much as their team-mates or competitors - that talking about it is admitting a "weakness". The fact that players are now recognising "bubble fatigue" and acting, either by resting from or leaving those environments, suggests the barriers are coming down.
"The thing with mental health and working on things is that it's a habit, it's a practice," Meaker says. "You can try and do it for a week or a month here and there but that's not really going to solve your problems, or make changes, or create good habits.
"That's the hard part. Like going on a diet or a New Year's resolution, you start doing it for two weeks, a month and then it just fades, falls from there. The successful ones, the ones that really get to grips with being good at healing themselves from issues, they create the daily habits that they need to and they live their life accordingly.
"I wouldn't say I'm there yet, no, certainly not," he adds, laughing.
A cricketer's lifestyle doesn't lend itself to forming and sticking to good habits. Travelling between matches which require intense focus for up to four or five days at a time means other aspects of life are pushed to the perimeter.
Lockdown didn't help, and Meaker is acutely aware that people around the country from all walks of life have struggled during the past year and are still struggling, whether it be with financial problems, feelings of isolation or health concerns and the effects those issues have on mental health.
"Not only do you have all these worries going on, you're disconnected, far more than you've ever been," he says. "Because you can't meet up socially with people, you don't get that little boost of interaction, that dopamine kick, you would normally get when you have a good conversation or hug a mate, or get to talk through some of your worries."
In January, Sussex launched the Sussex Cricket Mental Health & Wellbeing Hub to help the community deal with issues exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the resources and videos of people sharing their experiences of mental health issues is Sarah Taylor, the former England wicketkeeper who is now wicketkeeping coach with the Sussex men's team, speaking about her battle with anxiety. Meaker is there too, talking about his career and encouraging sporting bodies to educate entire teams about what they can do to be mindful of people experiencing mental health issues in their midst.
Meaker says he is still learning about mental health himself, but he is much further ahead than he was before.
"Whether I'm able to implement it right away, maybe not, but at least I understand it a little bit more," he says. "The next bit is how seriously I want to take it and what habits I want to create that are actually really going to help me get better with my mental health."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo