For the five seasons from 2006 until 2010, Luke Sutton was the player local reporters requested if Lancashire had suffered a bad day. Almost regardless of how poorly the cricket had gone, he would be courteous, articulate, objective. If their sports desks needed quotes, the journalists were covered. And for Sutton, they thought, the glass was always half-full.
But as things have turned out, this was not the happiest of metaphors. Inside the successful wicketkeeper-batsman there was the most troubled of souls, a player who viewed himself as a journeyman cricketer and who felt that he was nothing more than "just about good enough" at Old Trafford. Provoked by this belief - many would say misconception - Sutton's deeply rooted competitive instincts compelled him to maintain an outstanding level of fitness and keep his place in a team stuffed with internationals.
Sutton found release in alcohol. Since his early twenties he had known that booze was an issue for him but it was also the deceitful companion with whom he could escape from all the burdens of self. Anyone who has been dependent on alcohol knows such a lifestyle is almost certain to end in chaos and tragedy. Fortunately for Sutton, it was only the former.
In 2011 he returned to his former county, Derbyshire, but after the end of that season he bumped into Lancashire's Glen Chapple and his wife, Kerry, at Euston Station. The Lancashire players were returning north after their visit to Buckingham Palace to mark their championship win. Sutton was on the road to nowhere. He was even incapable of deciding which train he might catch to take him home. Fortunately the Chapples put him into a coach, but then came a horrendous 36-hour bender during which this loving father was too drunk to take his diabetic daughter to a hospital appointment. It ended with Sutton sitting on his bed in the Priory, the psychiatric hospital into which he had been booked by Kerry Chapple. Little could Sutton understand it, but he had started on the path back to beautiful normality.
At a Costa's in Knutsford last December, Sutton and I talked about Back From The Edge, the book he wrote about his month in the Priory and the years that led up to it. He almost glowed with good health and it was difficult to believe that he is 43; difficult too, perhaps, to believe this bloke was once "broken" and felt "like a wafer-thin piece of paper that had been ripped into a million pieces".
You read a hundred or so pages of Sutton's autobiography and realise that rigorous self-analysis and brutal truth-telling were required before he could do such sweet things as sip a cappuccino and look forward to his wedding to his fiancée Joanna this year. Back From The Edge is one of the most honest cricket books ever written. Even people who can't tell a short leg from a kick up the arse should read it.
"The book is part of the cure and part of the healing," said Sutton. "Almost everyone, except my fiancée, has been shocked by something they have read in it. They've all been touched by parts of my life. It was an opportunity for me to share things with people, including my mum and dad. I was initially asked to write another book but I'd reached the point where I wanted to write this one. I sent the publishers the first chapter and they texted me back telling me to keep on writing. Then it just poured out of me. I'd reached a point where I felt comfortable about my own journey and ready to write about it. I also felt it carried a message that might help other people and it was important not to dilute that message."
Drink was both a cause and a symptom of Sutton's problems. Having had his competitive traits dangerously sharpened at Millfield, a school renowned for the veneration of sporting excellence, he became a professional cricketer who placed debilitating stress on every success and therefore rewarded himself after every triumph with a few drinks. Except that a few were never enough. Waking up with a hangover only sent him back to the gym or the cricket field, but punishment for one binge also became a justification for the next. Few spirals are more vicious.
"Clubs should be really careful about the environment they create and not to think that if the cricketer is playing well and the team are winning, all is good"
"I would work extremely hard and make winning a thing that defined me as a person and then have a blow-out which released the pressure," he says. "Purging and rewarding blended into one and both got to an extreme which started to destroy me. It was not only impossible to live a professional cricketer's life, it was impossible to live any life. Lancashire never said anything because they didn't know, and I did my job. After the first couple of years as a pro cricketer, I won every fitness test in every squad I was in. I was pretty reliable.
"My message now is that we get lost in the 'work hard, play hard' and 'boys will be boys' mantras. I think there were times when I was exhibiting some pretty extreme behaviour but it was all just part of the persona. There was no reason for anyone to flag it; I was really good at hiding things."
Except, of course, that Sutton couldn't hide things from his ex-wife, Jude, for whom his domestic unreliability became routine. Nor could he conceal things from tough counsellors at the Priory. "What makes you happy, Luke?" he was asked. "Being successful," came the reply. And for Sutton that success was defined by winning cricket matches and the approbation of his peers.
"I was obsessed with what people thought of me," he wrote. "It was a full-time job trying to maintain this level of control in my life. It was exhausting. And the great irony was that when I started drinking I didn't have any control. I could recognise that many of my mental health problems stemmed from this as well. My anxiety went with my obsession to control every outcome."
Sutton entered the Priory intending to stay for a week. He ended up spending 28 days in the hospital, making friends with people who didn't give a hoot about his cricket and going through painful group counselling sessions in which chairs were thrown and the language would have done credit to the Lancashire dressing room after a bad defeat. He also learned how to remake his life without placing a ruthless need for achievement at the heart of it. Now he is well placed to guide the careers of the sportspeople for whom he is an agent, and to offer advice on how to cope with success.
"Olympians struggle after Olympic Games, even if they win a gold medal," he said. "They've had this massive euphoria and then they have to drop back into ordinary life, but also they've attached so much importance to winning this medal that their happiness has been defined by it. They need a broader understanding of where they find happiness in life.
"I think the Professional Cricketers' Association does a brilliant job but my point would be that clubs should be really careful about the environment they create and not to think that if the cricketer is playing well and the team are winning, all is good. You've got to have a broader appreciation of the young men and women who are part of the fabric of that club. If you are managing young people as part of a team, you have as close a view of them as almost anyone, and you have to keep an eye on their behaviours and whether they are becoming extreme."
Sutton knows he is deeply fortunate. Above all he is blessed in the loving family he has around him. But he is bloody lucky that he has mates like Glen Chapple, Mark Chilton and Jimmy Anderson, who stuck by him when his life was disintegrating. He is fortunate that there was money to pay for his stay at the Priory. And it is also his great good luck to be living at a time in which alcohol dependence is treated as a social disease rather than a social embarrassment, and in which men are not regarded as weak when they admit to mental illness. Many contemporary cricketers and other sportspeople have profited from these enlightened attitudes but it was not always thus. Every county historian can recall those players who hit the skids because they liked the sauce far too much and ended up going off their chump.
Reg Santall played 496 matches for Warwickshire between 1919 and 1939, scoring 17518 runs and taking 280 wickets. He was something of a golden boy and the son of the county's coach, Syd Santall. But when Reg died, aged 47, in 1950, he had ten pounds in the bank. "His bloated, purple-faced appearance in later years horrified those who could recall the slim and handsome youth," wrote Robert Brooke.
Or, on an even grander stage, there was Percy Chapman, who skippered England to a famous victory against Australia in 1926 and then captained the team that retained the Ashes 4-1 in 1928-29. Chapman was a brilliant fielder, a gloriously attacking batsman and a personification of charisma, but not even the kindly pen of Christopher Martin-Jenkins could disguise the lonely sadness of his final years. "He became an alcoholic and a sad shadow of the Adonis who had once been a national hero," wrote CMJ. "People who had once flocked to be near now avoided him."
Sutton's life is no longer defined by the demons that nearly destroyed him. His autobiography, like all the best books, is far richer than a review can reveal. As much as anything else, it tells how he came to appreciate life on life's terms. If Sutton should be threatened again, he has the fellowship of friends who will always help him out. For the moment, though, he is grateful to be one of those people for whom every sunrise is a faintly miraculous gift. His two children are a wonderful barometer of his progress. Their laughter is worth more to him than anything he could have achieved on sport's ivory stages.
Back from the Edge
By Luke Sutton
128 pages, £8.54