Depression in Cricket: Symptomatic of its environment?

As cricket fans, we all remember hearing the chilling news in late 2013 of Jonathan Trott’s mental struggles which had come to a head during the Ashes tour in Australia with him being sent home. Before him, one of the most talented batsman this country has ever produced, Marcus Trescothick, was found sobbing in the corner of his hotel room on a tour of India – his international career all but coming to an end.

Another former England international and World T20 winner, Michael Yardy, also cited mental health problems as being at the forefront to the end of his England career.

Over the years, several former England players have disclosed their struggles with mental illness. Home sickness, mental fatigue, or, in Trott’s case, having his ‘manhood’ put in to question on a daily basis, have all been reasons behind this.

Is there something inherent to Cricket as a sport which makes its proponents more susceptible to mental illness? The statistics would say no.

A survey completed in 2013 by the Professional Cricketer’s Association (PCA) found that 5% of the 500 who took part said they had suffered from stress-related illness. According to the World Health Organisation, the global figure for those suffering from depression is around 5%.

Such surveys, however, must be approached with caution, as some who took part may not have wanted to disclose mental health problems for a number of reasons. Trescothick himself has said that since his problems were revealed, he has had other players approaching him for advice on how to tackle depression as a sportsman.

Cricket is not by any means alone in having sportsmen who suffer from mental illness; Ian Thorpe, Frank Bruno, Ronnie O’Sullivan and, most tragically Robert Enke, to name but a few, all battle, or have battled depression.

There is a part of me that feels cricket, international especially, requires a certain type of personality which is perhaps more to vulnerable to depression.

A batsman has to be extremely mentally tough, wielding only a piece of wood when facing a small, hard red ball being flung down at you at speeds of 90mph from only 22 yards away. The strangest part is this, in Test cricket, you’re usually most successful if you choose not to hit the ball at all.

You might have to wait the best part of two days to bat, coming in under the most intense pressure to keep your place after a string of low scores or to not let your country down. In fear of yet another roasting by Bob Willis and co., you get that one petrifying delivery which jumps off a length and takes the handle of the bat, with your feet stuck with what feels like extra-strong glue to the surface.

Another 0ver for you when everybody else in the dressing room has scored runs for fun. The next time you’re out there could be your last. Don’t fail second time around.  That all too familiar feeling of failure, never far away and always nagging away at some corner of your brain.

It’s this sheer intensity and drive which perhaps makes them highly vulnerable to mental illness. Take the example of Trott, a fierce competitor even when it came to games of FIFA in the team hotel, ground down by the thought of having to sway out of the way of another Mitchell Johnson rip-snorter.

Former New Zealand Test player Iain O’Brien has opened up about his depression, saying that dressing rooms are full of players with odd mental idiosyncrasies: “I’ve played with guys with all forms of mental illness”, he says, appointing OCD to some and borderline Asperger’s to others. Trott, with the pre-delivery idiosyncratic routine he became renowned for, would certainly seem to come under that category.

Trott says he became mentally tired of having his very manhood put in question every time he walked out to bat. Trott was perceived to have a deficiency against the short ball by the Australians, and was duly tested to the limit by a succession of short-pitched bowling as soon as he arrived at the crease. Bit by bit, ball by ball, Trott’s mental will to carry on the in face of adversity waned to the extent he couldn’t complete the tour and was forced home.

Luckily, sports psychology and the methods of dealing with mental illness have come a long way in the past fifteen or so years, and those suffering can seek treatment – mental illness is no longer a definitive career-ender.

Thankfully, we’ve moved on from the days where, as former England batsman and depression sufferer Graeme Fowler notes: “If you said you’d got depression they’d have thought you were a nutcase and no good at cricket. People kept quiet. It was like homosexuals in the 1960s who wouldn’t say anything.”

But Fowler has also had reoccurrences of his depression even after the end of his career, not wanting to die but neither ‘wanting to live’. That is the nature of depression, it’s never there and then suddenly is, unlike a virus that ends after the passing of a certain amount of time. It fights you all the way.

With England about to embark on their busiest ever schedule of international cricket, the ECB must be extremely careful not to find another Trescothick cowered in the corner of their hotel room, or a Jonathan Trott, ground down by the sheer excursions of Test cricket – because once depression creeps its way in, it’s not easy to push it back out.

Joe Robinson

Featured image courtesy of David Surtees via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here. 

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