I don't know exactly what Marcus Trescothick has been going through during the past months, but clearly life, and perhaps especially life as a cricketer on tour, has become agonising for him. His difficulties are, of course, personal and private; but his case has again raised an apparent link between cricket and the emotional difficulties that, in some cases, amount to depression.
Does cricket cause, or evoke, depression? Or does the game attract more sensitive souls? In his biography of Harold Gimblett, the England and Somerset opening batsman who suffered depression and later took his own life, David Foot writes that ‘cricket is played very much in the mind... Only the unimaginative player escapes the tension. Many, whatever their seeming unconcern, retreat into caverns of introspection.’
The sportsman, especially the professional sportsman, is drawn to the simplicity and infinite perfectibility of his or her task. When suffering from the confusion of ordinary emotional life, sport can be a haven. The parameters can be mercifully limited. It is very hard to hit a cricket ball coming at you at 90mph; but it is not an emotionally complex job. I remember at a particularly troubled stage of my life finding batting in the nets and, a month or two later, in the middle, a refuge from emotional turmoil, which could for a while be left at the gates to the ground. Life becomes simpler. If there is real depression, of course, there would not be the energy or drive for any conflict-free zone of activity, including being involved in sport at any level.
When this refuge is removed, most commonly at retirement, the player loses the source of validation, of confidence, that sport provides. This particular asylum from confusion and emotional disturbance is gone for good. What's more, the recently retired player loses his place in a social group that is challenging and often affirming. However welcome the recently retired player may be in the dressing room in subsequent years, however reassuring the old-boy network in committee rooms or coaches' courses or the press box, that particular intimacy of a shared, mutually interdependent work-life has gone. Few ex-sportsmen will find a metier in which they have a similar degree of expertise and skill.
David Frith's book Silence of the Heart catalogues no fewer than 150 professional cricketers who committed suicide, most of them after they had retired.
I used to think that cricket, by its nature, schools its players to deal with problems of loss. Symbolic deaths occur almost every time you bat. Getting out means leaving the arena altogether, and being hors de combat for hours or days. I assumed that such repeated experience might be a source of strength for a cricketer, enabling him to mourn, cope with, and make the best of the loss of a loved profession on retirement. Sport enlists, in a usually healthy way, some of the aggression needed for the inevitable strivings of life, including competition. I imagined that sport enabled its practitioners to exercise aggression in a safe enough setting, and to have less need to turn it against themselves in the form of depression.
Perhaps my view was too positive. Perhaps cricket does little to help one cope with other more substantial losses in life. Like other challenges, for those who can cope, it strengthens, while for others it may simply be too much.
Cricket is a lonely activity. It is a duel between two protagonists, despite the team setting. Failure is public (there are not many jobs where one's failings are broadcast to the nation each day at breakfast time). Warwickshire's Tom Cartwright, one of the most successful, combative and philosophical of county cricketers of any era, once remarked on a stage in his cricketing life when he was able to keep going only by walking the dog in the evenings when he got home from matches.
My guess is that the souls drawn to cricket are not particularly sensitive, though the sources of delight in a sport so varied and complex as cricket may include parallel complexities in its devotees. Beyond that, each story of a person's depression, and in some cases, suicide, is unique, and often obscure to all those around him. David Bairstow, the ebullient and extrovert Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper, who killed himself in 1998 at the age of 46, had many current problems. But few, I think, could have predicted that under his flamboyant exterior was a potential or actual depth of depression that could lead him to this extreme action. Such a terrible outcome makes one wonder how much unknown, almost invisible, misery there is all around us.
When it comes to it, none of us can cope adequately with the problems of life without support, whether from friends and colleagues, one's partner, or even the dog.
In England, the Professional Cricketers' Association, with the approval of the England and Wales Cricket Board, offers all current professionals the opportunity for four free counselling sessions, allowing instant telephone access from anywhere in the world. Here is an acknowledgement of a reality, and an attempt to help.