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News Analysis

Fun turns to fear for Jonathan Trott

A joyous debut century is now a world away for Jonathan Trott as the complexities of international cricket catch up with him

George Dobell
George Dobell
A couple of weeks after Jonathan Trott's Test debut, he remarked that the experience of playing in the game, even before his match-defining century, had been "the most fun" he had ever had.
But somewhere in the intervening years the fun has disappeared. Instead of fun, there is fear. Instead of joy there is anxiety. It was telling that Alastair Cook spoke of the Ashes as being like "a war". No one enjoys wars.
Trott might seem, at first glance anyway, an unlikely candidate for a stress-related illness. He took to international cricket with apparent ease. Having scored that century at The Oval against an attack similar to that which he came up against in Brisbane over the last few days, Mitchell Johnson and all, he moved to the upper echelons of the world rankings in both ODI and Test cricket and made a habit of producing nerveless innings when they were most required. It all looked as if it came so easily.
But stress does not discriminate. Perhaps you can care too much. Perhaps, if you try too hard, you are more likely to fail. Perhaps a period of success can build not just confidence, but expectation and pressure.
Cricket means a great deal to Trott. With a cricket coach for a father and a cricket player (Kenny Jackson) as a big brother, he was steeped in the game from the start. It seemed natural when he breezed through the age group teams in South Africa and moved to England to pursue his career full time.
He flourished. With nothing to lose, he made a habit of producing match-turning contributions and seemed to have the perfect temperament. As he explained, when he was batting well, he hardly thought at all. He just played each ball on its merits and had the hunger to do so all day. He made a century on debut in 2003 and soon became a fixture in a strong Warwickshire side.
But then came the first of the serious setbacks. In the summer of 2007 he lost form so completely that he barely managed 20 and, at times, looked unrecognisable from the Jacques Kallis-like batsman who had previously dominated. It is not easy for a perfectionist to accept failure.
He reacted the only way he knew how. He worked harder; he pushed himself more. He could be seen in the nets as early as 7am on the day of games.
And the more he pushed, the more he failed. Even on nights away from the game, he could be seen practising his trigger movements and back lift in the glass of restaurant windows, in bathroom mirrors on holiday, in clothes shops and coffee bars. He talked of the absurdity of a game in which, when in the best of form, you can play and edge a ball to slip but in the worst of form you can miss and survive. He talked of "worms in his head" that were eating away at his confidence and forcing him to overthink something that had once been so natural. He talked about giving up the game and pursuing a different career.
But he found a way through all that. Partly through the support of Ashley Giles and partly through the support of his wife, he found the stability to deal with the inevitable setbacks that occur in a career as a batsman. He learned to accept that, as long as he had prepared well, he had to accept the occasional failure.
To prevent those intrusive thoughts entering his head, he settled upon a formula. He would make that famous trench in the pitch between deliveries; he would fiddle with his pads; bend his knees; check his boots and gloves. Anything it took to ensure there was no time to let those thoughts creep back.
He was mocked by some. They found him compulsive and robotic, missing the point that it was a tactic to deal with an excess of emotion. It was a tactic to avoid the dark thoughts that have always circulated but have only now settled upon him.
It worked, too. He produced some magnificent innings for England. Innings that shaped matches and series; innings that earned him respect from opponents around the world. Great innings.
"You should talk to me after I've failed," he said, one day after making a century. "There's no point talking to me after I've got runs. You won't learn anything that way. I don't think anything when I'm scoring runs. It's when I'm not scoring them that you could learn something."
There were some setbacks along the way. They were always away from home; nearly always towards the end of a long tour. Without his normal routine and without the comforting influence of family and home, there was no one to tell him it was one bad innings or one bad game; no one to limit the scale of the failure or remind him of the perspective. No one to tell him to turn off the TV and get some sleep. The England management knew this and managed it well. While there are times the England camp can be somewhat cliquey, there is no more anyone could have done - players and support staff - to be supportive and sympathetic in the last few days.
Why has the situation now peaked? The struggle against Mitchell Johnson in Brisbane may have been a catalyst but it is not the cause. It may have unmasked the problem, but it is not the underlying issue. It is more likely that this has been an accumulative issue which has been building and subsiding for many months. Maybe this Ashes series, coming so soon after a high-pressure tour to India, a Champions Trophy campaign that meant more to this England team than many realise and then back-to-back Ashes series have taken their toll.
When he should have been relaxing, ahead of this tour, he returned to the nets for extra sessions to ready himself for the challenge he knew lay around the corner. When he should have been sleeping, he was worrying. He simply needs down time. Time not to think about batting. Time not to think.
It would be simplistic to blame David Warner for this. But, in time, perhaps we should reflect on whether there is anything about the England set-up - its intensity and its relentless schedule - that contributes to this problem. The fact that Trott, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy have all suffered a broadly similar issue within seven years is remarkably coincidental. Several others, including Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard, have struggled to up hold the pretence when all they wanted to do was stop.
Perhaps those of us in the media should reflect, too. Some of the comments following Trott's second innings were disproportionately harsh. They questioned not just Trott's ability and technique, but his bravery and his masculinity. There is always pressure on journalists to find the most memorable description and it often seems as if the Devil has the best lines. But we do need to remind ourselves that sports personalities - usually young people with their dreams and livelihoods at stake - are as fragile and flawed as the rest of us.
For a man of Trott's background - raised in a macho environment where fears and insecurities are to be denied - to ask for help is a major undertaking. There is a certain bravery in doing so. He knows some will mock him and accuse him of weakness and that will hurt him. But there's a certain selflessness in his actions, too. He could have battled on, living on reputation and not allowed anyone else an opportunity in his place. But he knew he wasn't in the mood to help the team as much as he would have liked. He knows there is no guarantee of a return to the side.
In time, Trott will come to realise he is a lucky man. Whatever happens in the rest of his career - and it would be disingenuous to pretend that this may not be the end of his international career - he has touched heights that few manage. He has played some great innings; he has won games for his country; he has been part of a team that reached No. 1 in the world in all formats and he has won the ICC Player of the Year award, arguably the highest accolade in cricket. He has achieved a great deal.
More importantly, he has a healthy, happy family who love and value him. In the weeks ahead, he will have time to spend with them and the "worms in his head" will gradually fade away. There will be regrets and there will be pain, but there will also be a realisation that he has handled a horrible situation as well as he could and that his blessings far outweigh his problems.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo