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Foxy and the dragon

Graeme Fowler's autobiography talks sensitively and unflinchingly about his battles with depression

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Graeme Fowler has become a passionate and vocal advocate for mental health issues  •  Getty Images

Graeme Fowler has become a passionate and vocal advocate for mental health issues  •  Getty Images

You might remember Graeme Fowler as the Lancashire opener who made a double-hundred on England's 1984-85 tour of India, his last Test series. Perhaps he is familiar as the eccentric mentor to dozens of professional cricketers - including former England captain Andrew Strauss - during his time in charge of Durham University's centre of excellence. Maybe you've come across him as the prolific @GFoxyFowler on Twitter, where one of his three favourite topics is "tweeting rubbish".
All of these areas are covered in Fowler's autobiography, Absolutely Foxed, but its most compelling passages concern his battle with the depression that afflicted him suddenly, long after his playing days were over. Now approaching 60, Fowler has become a passionate and vocal advocate for mental health issues, working with the Professional Cricketers' Association in England to help raise awareness within the game; this book provides lessons on the subject that ought to benefit wider society.
Fowler had been retired for a decade and was in charge of the highly regarded system for bringing through players at Durham - which provided the template for centres of excellence at five other UK universities - when he was first diagnosed with clinical depression, in 2004. He has learned to cope by being open about it, coming up with a system to let others know how he is feeling, and characterising his illness as "just a thing, a chemical imbalance".
Being so straightforward can be profoundly affecting, nevertheless. Writing about how his wife, Sarah, told him he needed to go to the doctor because he hadn't spoken to her or their three children for weeks, Fowler describes the realisation that "everything was hopeless, pointless, worthless", the feeling that his "head had just stopped working".
Then he pauses: "I'm going to cry now, but I'll carry on."
Fowler did not possess the "suicide gene" but he struggled to find the will to live. Asked if he had considered suicide, he replied: "No, because I know I have a nice life. I have a great job, great family, lovely wife. I know all that exists, but I can't get to it. It's over there, and I can't get there. So am I going to kill myself? The answer is no. But do I wish I was dead? Yes." To those who knew Fowler as an effervescent character on and off the pitch, such darkness must have seemed especially troubling.
The personal accounts of Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy and Jonathan Trott mean cricket is better prepared for these discussions and Fowler goes even further in his attempts to remove the stigma surrounding mental health. He uses a scale, from 0 to 20, to give a numerical value to how he is feeling - "Ten is neutral, and anything above that number I'm okay and can communicate. Anything below, I'm not and I'm struggling" - which was initially to help Sarah and his young daughters but is now equally effective during his interactions on social media.
The first chapter of Absolutely Foxed tackles the subject of Fowler's depression unflinchingly, and he revisits it throughout - although that does not mean this is a book wreathed in sadness. The tone is humorous as well as candid, and the fact that John Woodhouse, the journalist who helped Fowler put his account together, has also suffered from depression perhaps helps to explain why it is so sensitively handled.
Alongside Fowler the "lunatic" (a word he cheerfully and frequently uses), there is plenty of room for Fowler the player and Fowler the coach. Talented enough to be opening the batting for Accrington's first team in the Lancashire League at the age of 15, he steadily progressed to playing county cricket and then being capped by England after just one full season for Lancashire. "Foxy" was a nickname given to him by Bob Willis on debut, echoing a famous prison breaker of the 1950s. "Everybody calls me it now, except for one person, of course - Bob Willis."
While some claimed he was only considered because of bans handed to those who went on rebel South Africa tours, such as Graham Gooch, Fowler's hundred at Lord's in 1984 - against a West Indies attack featuring Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall - and his 201 in Madras suggested an aptitude for the highest level.
Ian Botham, who provides the foreword to Absolutely Foxed, was a high-profile backer and there is something Botham-esque about Fowler's escapades as a player (partying alongside Elton John and downing pints to help him sleep the night before a game), as well as his no-nonsense "that's just bollocks" take on various aspects of life.
An undiagnosed neck injury caused by a head-on car crash when he was 21 effectively ended his England career at its peak but Fowler's second coming as an idiosyncratic and inspiring coach was even more significant. An independent thinker - one of his schoolteachers described his methods as "Fowler-esque" - he developed an ability to break down technique and help young players become better versions of themselves. Fowler connected with his Durham students on a personal level (although he admits he didn't get it right with everyone) and describes being a good coach as "like being an amateur psychologist". He is better qualified than most in that regard and it is a shame that he has now left Durham, unhappy at changes made by the MCC to the system he created.
Trenchant and poignant, Fowler's memoir is also very funny - he has a good memory and the knack of a storyteller, most evident in the chapter about his former team-mate David "Bumble" Lloyd. There is also much wisdom, not least in his description of cricket as a "game based on failure". That brings to mind Samuel Beckett's famous line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Few in cricket have failed better or to more wide-ranging good effect than Foxy.
Absolutely Foxed
By Graeme Fowler
Simon & Schuster
305 pages, £18.99

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick