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Interviews

Wayne Phillips on the mental-health struggles that curtailed his career: 'I was vomiting during games'

The keeper-batter came into international cricket at a time when Australia were at a low ebb, and it took a toll on his mental health

Shannon Gill
28-Jan-2022
Wayne Phillips during the Ashes, 1985

"We didn't know about mental health in those days, so I didn't say a word," Wayne Phillips says about his troubled mid-'80s career for Australia  •  Adrian Murrell  /  Getty Images

When South Australia's Alex Carey slipped on the gloves for his debut Test earlier this summer, it felt like the natural order. He was nurtured in A squads and blooded in white-ball cricket, but his selection was never assured. Still, there was no doubt about the role he would be playing if a baggy green was presented, and about the support behind him.
It was vastly different the last time South Australia had a wicketkeeper play more than a single Test for Australia. Wayne Phillips rode a roller coaster of uncertainty for 27 matches, 18 of them behind the stumps as an accidental gloveman. His was one of Australia's finest debuts but he was soon left exhausted and disenchanted with the game. It was only many years later that he really understood what he had been going through.
Phillips, "Flipper" to everyone in cricket, grew up in the 1970s loving the game. He would bat wherever they asked him, and at school he'd even take the keeping gloves if need be. He was willing to give anything a go because it was more about having fun with his friends than any pretensions to a cricket career.
His talent and thirst for the game took him into the South Australia team. A middle-order batter, he was willing to open when a spot came up, and helped pilot the side to the 1981-82 Sheffield Shield title, becoming one of the hottest young batting prospects in the land in the process.
By 1983-84, generational change was imminent for the national team. An early-season Shield double-century gave Phillips an opening berth for Australia against the visiting Pakistan side. (The previous season, he had toured Pakistan with Australia, playing two tour games.)
"I was in pretty reasonable form, but it was daunting to walk into a dressing room with icons of the game - Marsh, Lillee, Chappell, Hughes and Border," Phillips says.
Daunting, you say? In his first Test, in Perth, he ended the first session with 66 not out to his name, and his batting had all the fuss of a game of backyard cricket: If it was pitched up, he whacked it back down the ground. If short, he lathered it through point.
It stands as one of the most remarkable Test debuts ever by an Australian cricketer. Phillips is one of only five men to open the batting and score a century on debut for Australia and sits with Charles Bannerman as the only Australian to walk out to bat for the first ball of a Test and score a century.
"I trusted my game and Pakistan didn't know too much about me, so there weren't any obvious plans once I got a start," he says. "I had nothing to lose, so it probably looked carefree."
Eventually out caught in the deep for 159, he fell six short of Bannerman's score, still the highest on debut by an Australian. In keeping with the laid-back exterior, Phillips had no idea about the record's existence. "I wasn't aware of those intricacies at the time but 159 has become a bit of a calling card - 1:59pm will be the starting time for my funeral!" he laughs.
Tall and handsome with flowing locks that flourished at the front and ran narrowly down the neck, Phillips in 1983 looked like he could be fronting a pop band on the TV show Countdown. As a bunch of '70s icons came up to their curtain calls, he looked to be a face for the changing times.
"To come in and score those runs in the first Test and go through the series acknowledged as part of the future of Australian cricket was wonderful," he says. "It was a comfortable tag to lug around - opening bat for Australia."
The legendary Bill O'Reilly applauded Australia's new find and concluded in the Sydney Morning Herald that "Phillips has come to stay". But he couldn't have foreseen the years of chaos around the Australian team that were to derail the prediction.
As was so often the case for opposition teams through the '80s, it was against West Indies that the trouble started.
Phillips had barely picked up a keeping glove since playing first-class cricket, but the selectors knew he had dabbled behind the sticks as a teenager, and their eyes lit up when he top-scored with 76 in the second innings of the first Test, in Georgetown.
"Roger Woolley had been selected to take over from Rod Marsh and done everything right, but horribly for him, he broke his finger in the lead-up game to the first Test and I was the dubious back-up keeper on the tour.
"I wasn't a keeper at all, I was just an emergency replacement who had kept wicket as a kid. I hadn't kept regularly since I'd been at school. I didn't even have keeping gear on tour."
Phillips' batting led the selectors to think they had found someone who would allow them to play an extra bat or bowler, so they kept him on in the role for the series. "If Roger didn't break his finger, I would never have been asked to keep wickets at all in my career," Phillips says.
There was anything but stability in the role as he bounced between opening and batting in the middle, usually dependent on the form and fitness of others. But Phillips wasn't about to rock the boat. "I'm in my first year of getting a game for Australia, it can't get any better than this. I was happy to do whatever they asked me to do."
In a series that was not televised back home, he produced a 120 in the third Test, in Barbados, that remains one of the great lost classics of Australian batting. Age correspondent Peter McFarline wrote that Phillips' innings was fit to rank alongside anything that the likes of Barbados greats the three Ws, Garry Sobers and Seymour Nurse had produced. "He may some day strike the ball as well. But he will never do it with more confidence, timing, power and placement," the report said.
Phillips strode to the wicket at 263 for 6 and produce a mixture of power-hitting and tail-end shepherding that took Australia to 429.
"I've seen some bits of it on replay and Marshall, Garner, Holding, they all went for six," he recalls. "I understand it has been acknowledged as one of the better innings of the time, so I'm immensely proud of that."
But in the second innings the team folded for 97. The dam walls had broken. West Indies would dominate the rest of the series, and the return series, months later down under.
Australia were flailing through this stretch, so to have one of the country's best batters also keep wicket was irresistible for the selectors, and the Phillips keeping experiment became a long-term fix. For the man himself, it soon took a physical and mental toll, and it was hard for him to ever feel as if he was best prepared to make runs - his chosen vocation.
Amidst the growing pressure there was a flirtation with the South African rebel tour, as much for career stability rather than financial reasons before he opted against that trip and took the gloves for the 1985 Ashes tour and regularly performed rescue jobs on wearing pitches.
"I got 90 in the first Test, had a decent partnership with AB [Allan Border] to save a Test, hit a six at Lord's to get us in a position to win a Test, so with the bat I thought I was making a genuine contribution."
He remains the only Australian wicketkeeper to ever score 350 Test runs in an away Ashes, but in a losing team there was a reliance on his batting of the sort no other Australian keeper before or since has had to deal with. He played 15 one-day or first-class games in addition to the six Tests on that tour, taking the gloves 12 times, and customarily batted in various positions. In Phillips' words cricket was "getting big on him".
"Not having that regularity of knowing what I would be doing did start to affect me. Yes, I was playing for Australia, which was fantastic, but boy, I reckon it would have been a bit less challenging if there had been some structure and support around what I was doing. There just didn't seem to be any thought about how this dual role could work best."
The season to follow was the nadir of Australia's mid-eighties slump, punctuated by two series losses to New Zealand and two draws against India, one of them lucky. For Phillips, two years of pressure of doing double time in a team that kept losing was about to reach the point of no return. He was back opening the batting, but his form and confidence were slipping.
Having to keep wicket was affecting his batting but being able to keep wicket was holding his spot safe. It was a microcosm of his career: the more the gloves sabotaged his batting, the more he needed the gloves. In Adelaide against India things started to crystalise in Phillips' mind.
"They made 500 or so, and we had to bat for half an hour. AB said, 'Take a breather and don't open the batting' and I was just so relieved to hear it. It was a sign that things weren't right."
As with any summer in that era, the Australian public's eyes lasered in on its team on Boxing Day. National heroes can be made as Australia holidays and watches. Alternatively, careers can be mortally wounded.
O'Reilly called Phillips' innings a "tormented" stay - he made just seven runs in 77 minutes - and he fumbled chances behind the stumps as India piled on runs. The weight of two years' anxiety came home to roost, deadening the enterprise that had marked his free-flowing entrance into Test cricket.
The spotlight was piercing when he dropped to No. 7 for the second innings. Trevor Grant wrote in the Age that "the excuse of mental tiredness could not be used. After all the mistakes he had made behind the wickets, he had a lot of ground to recover. The best way to achieve that was to march out boldly and take up the challenge. To be fair to him, perhaps it wasn't his decision."
To be fair to Phillips, cricket was becoming unbearable. Mike Coward reported in the Age after that Boxing Day Test: "Australian cricket captain Allan Border will today seek to further reassure wicketkeeper-batsman Wayne Phillips, who is deeply depressed after another poor display." Phillips says Coward was correct.
"I was vomiting during games, and it was nothing to do with the caterers. It was because of the stress. It got incredibly challenging and I'm human. Cricket wasn't very enjoyable at that stage."
Phillips has spoken publicly about battling mental-health issues later in life but for the first time concedes now that it was something that plagued him through the period.
"We didn't know about mental health in those days, so I didn't say a word," he says. "Now, upon reflection, after having medical assistance for mental health and understanding it, it probably confirms that I was suffering through depression during that period."
Everybody had an opinion on Phillips' role during the summer, even the prime minister, Bob Hawke. "We've got to have a specialist keeper and I don't say that as any reflection on Wayne Phillips. I think an unfair burden has been imposed upon him," Hawke said.
"Surely there were more important things for the PM to talk about!" Phillips laughs.

****

Kelly Applebee, the general manager for Member Programs and Player Relations at the Australian Cricketers' Association, says a player in Phillips' situation today would have a variety of support available to them.
"The ACA now runs programmes dedicated to the mental health of players, the sort of thing that would have helped Wayne back then. We provide confidential psychological support for members, and each high-performance programme employs a dedicated player development manager that works with players to prioritise their mental health."
"It's light years ahead of where the game once was but it remains something we need to be vigilant and continue educating about. There's probably a lot of stories like Flipper's from the past that remain untold."
You can often find Phillips today as a wisecracking raconteur at ACA functions, but his experiences during his career are among the reasons for his deeper involvement with the ACA as a state coordinator.
"There's no blame on anyone, but there was no system in cricket to deal with any of those things in my day."
At the time nobody could quite reconcile Phillips' sense of humour with his travails on the field and in the mind. Steve Waugh wrote in his autobiography about how Phillips was "always upbeat and great fun to be around" but wondered whether the laid-back attitude was genuine or a disguise for uncertainty and self-doubt.
"It wasn't a cover," Phillips says. "It was genuinely how I tried to get the best out of myself. We were getting beaten, I was mentally struggling, and I just needed to find ways to smile."
But times were about to change.

****

The Australian selectors listened to their prime minister and selected wicketkeeper Tim Zoehrer along with Phillips for the February Tests in New Zealand. Now batting at No. 3 without the gloves Phillips compiled a four-hour 62 against the grain of his natural game in what was to be his final Test.
Newly appointed coach Bob Simpson should have been impressed, but Simpson was notoriously inflexible when it came to his idea of what a Test cricketer should be, and he wasn't known for a sense of humour. For some, the writing was on the wall.
"A few of us were moved on, and it didn't surprise us at all," Phillips says. "Bob did well but he did it his way and it was very different to how a group of us were, and why we loved the game. The make-up of the population is full of different people, but Simmo wanted to make his mark early."
There was an epilogue later in 1986, when Phillips was not selected for a one-day tour, and this time he didn't bite his tongue.
"I'd spoken to about six or seven media outlets about the decision and used the line 'I will not be at the beck and call of those idiots [the selectors] again' in an off-handed way and it was the eighth that printed it and it became a story."
It may have ensured his name was struck through for good, but it was understandable given the two years of mismanagement and gap-filling he had endured.
"I was exhausted, the joy had gone from the game for me by that point."
That final self-sabotage was the mental release Phillips needed.
"It was a weight off the shoulders to go back and play for South Australia, just being able to play and enjoy the game and get back to the people you were confident with. It was moving off the hot plate."
He played primarily as a batter and plundered the touring England side for 116 and 70, scored close to 900 first-class runs, then crushed Tasmania in the McDonalds Cup one-day final with a match winning 75 from 43 balls. Bill Lawry made a case for his resurrection ("one wonders why Phillips was overlooked for higher one-day honours this season") and it wasn't the only place Phillips heard those suggestions.
"[During] the hundred against England - Botham and Lamby they all piped up with, 'Jeez, Flipper, this is interesting, we might play you again' but I had made my peace at that point."
The fog had lifted, and cricket had become enjoyable again. The most treasured memory from that season of release was sharing an Australian first-class record partnership (at the time) of 462 undefeated with his team-mate and friend, the late David Hookes.
"The SACA have acknowledged it with a photo of David and I in Hookesy's bar at the Adelaide Oval. I go there regularly on my own and have a chat to Hookesy. I let him know what's going on with the family, what's happening with the game. It's special."
Phillips eventually bowed out of first-class cricket without ever being at the selectors' beck and call again.
Despite the traumatic period that killed his love for the game for a period, he has no regrets. "I was able to represent Australia as a Test player. Lord's, MCG, Adelaide Oval, you pinch yourself that you're there. But it's got to be fun."
He is also content that these days, a player who has been mentally ground down by a battle to forge his career, has the kind of support that was lacking back then.
"It's a genuine form of health that you need have care for, like a hamstring injury or a broken finger."
It was the fun of playing the game that brought out the best in Phillips, and his two Test centuries were evidence of it. It's the way he navigates mental-health challenges today, and it was always the motivation to play.
"It's a game of cricket. You should be able to enjoy that, surely."