Distress calls from the crease

Pressures of modern-day game is taking its toll on the players, as evident from the Trott episode

Distress calls from the crease

Among the traditionalists in candy-striped blazers at the venerable Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the sport is often viewed through the prism of ideals espoused by the upper-crust Victorians who set the game’s rules 150 years ago. Players were expected to behave at all times, win or lose, as gentlemen, and never allow their stiff-upper-lip resolve to falter.

Such expectations are never higher than in Test cricket, the most prestigious form of the game. But these traditions have been deeply eroded in recent decades as cricket has become a global television draw, with multimillionaire players, sharp-edged gamesmanship, and occasional doping and match-fixing scandals. With that has come heightened animosity among top players, including sledging, a term coined in Australia to describe the cult of on-field insults among rival players, often woundingly personal, that are aimed at unsettling opponents.

The pressure, the money, the trash talk, the travel, the threat of injury, the worries about life after cricket and many other factors — all seem to have contributed to a high incidence of top players having psychological breakdowns. 

The latest incident involves a stalwart of England’s lineup, Jonathan Trott, 32, who withdrew from the Ashes series in Australia and caught a 10,000-mile flight back to England. The England team issued a statement saying Trott had a “stress-related condition” that involved a recurrence of a depressive condition the South African-born Trott had battled since he first played for England in 2009.

Trott’s withdrawal came after repeated bouts of sledging by Australian players and a television interview where Australian David Warner called Trott’s recent batting “pretty poor and pretty weak” and said that Trott had “scared eyes” when facing Mitchell Johnson. 

Johnson’s 90-mph deliveries devastated England’s batsmen in the first of five Test matches in Brisbane and also in the second Test at Adelaide.

Trott is the second case in recent years of a top English player’s withdrawal from an Ashes series because of a psychological condition. In 2006, Marcus Trescothick, another England Test batsman at the peak of his career, dropped out of an Ashes series in Australia citing mental problems. He never played Test cricket again, but he wrote a best-selling book about his depression, “Coming Back to Me,” and has said he continues to struggle with his condition despite years of counselling.

“It’s debilitating, it grinds you down, and it’s difficult to escape from,” he said after learning of Trott’s problems. “There’s no hiding place from it.”

Trescothick’s experience helped persuade the cricket authorities in England to establish programmes aimed at helping players and their families cope with stress. Run by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the programmes include a hotline team of trained counsellors who travel in England for one-on-one therapy sessions, and, starting this fall, a series of online tutorials led by Trescothick under the rubric “Mind Matters.”

Anchoring the tutorials, Trescothick describes the programmes as having contributed to a growing awareness across sports in Britain of the incidence of psychological distress.“The stigma of mental illness among sporting professionals has been significantly reduced thanks to a number of high-profile figures’ bravely speaking out about their own experience,” he says.

Angus Porter, the chief executive of the cricketers’ association, said in an interview that having former cricketers working as counsellors had helped.

“Players listen to players,” he said. “The tradition has been for those responsible for the players’ careers to say, 'Pull yourself together and snap out of it.'”  With cricket’s long history to draw on, the debate has gone back a century, to the suicide of A E Stoddart, a standout batsman and England captain in the 1890s who was called Stod. Burdened with gambling debts and unable to cope with life after his cricketing feats were past, Stoddart shot himself in London in 1915 at age 52.

His story is one of the anchors of “Silence of the Heart,” David Frith’s 2011 book on 100 cricketing suicides over the past century. It concluded that the suicide rate among Test-match players in England and a dozen other competing countries was far above the rate of suicides recorded for all other sports.

But officials of the cricketers’ association said a survey conducted among 500 current and former professionals earlier this year suggested that the incidence of mental breakdown in professional cricket in England is roughly the same, at about 5 percent, as in the general population. But they said Test cricketers, particularly batsmen, faced high levels of stress: alone in distant hotel rooms for 250 and more days every year; exposed to the physical threat of fast bowlers; and faced with the fear of being dumped from Test teams after a poor performance, losing million-dollar contracts.

Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain for eight years until 2012, has acknowledged the destructive self-doubt that hastened his retirement. “I had heard sports psychologists talking about the 'little voice’ that sits on athletes’ shoulders as they compete,” he wrote in his autobiography. 

“It’s a negative voice, one that says you’re no good, one that says you can’t win, that’s it’s not worth it, that you should give up. The great athletes are able to ignore that little voice or tell it to go away.” But in his case, he said, he could not.

But former England captain, Michael Atherton, a Cambridge-educated celebrated for his stoic resolve in batting England out of what appeared to be impossible situations in the 1990s, has been sceptical about batsmen unable to cope with bowlers like Johnson. “Cricket is a far better game when there is a physical threat,” he wrote in The London Times, “and when batsmen have to search inside themselves and summon up the courage.”

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