Cricket can sometimes be a killer of a game

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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Here is a paradox about cricket. The game can seen to be a charming, often rustic, sport but it applies such intense mental and physical pressures on players that many of them succumb to depression, and a significant number of them end up taking their lives.

These thoughts are prompted on reflecting on Michael Yardy, the journeyman England spinner, who left the World Cup squad before the crucial quarter-final against Sri Lanka to overcome an illness he has been managing for a prolonged period of time.

Yardy played three matches in the World Cup scoring 19 runs and taking only two wickets.

He becomes the second England player in recent years to leave an overseas tour because of depression.

Marcus Trescothick, the forthright and successful England opener, gave up international cricket when he found he could not cope with a depression that had engulfed him.

In recent years we are starting to understand how crippling the “black dog” of depression can be. There are treatments and most importantly for, say, professional athletes, there is an understanding and sympathy for the condition.

But this is a recent development.

In the past, people with depression, especially athletes under pressure to perform at the highest levels of their sports, had to try and live their life somehow in spite of it.

Some of people with persistent depression, like Winston Churchill, succeeded in living out a full and successful life despite their ‘black dog’ moods.

Many others, unfortunately, succumbed to their depression and took their lives.

David Frith, the knowledgeable and prolific cricket writer, has written several books on the high incidence of cricket players committing suicide. His first book on the topic covered 80 cricket suicides. In later books he covered 150 suicides, and he says he is coming across new cases all the time.

Frith’s conclusion is this: “Cricket, because it is so monopolistic, because it swallows you up before spitting you out, because it enfolds you and plays on the mind, filling you with confusion and self-doubt, is by far the major sport for suicides.”

This argument that the nature of cricket itself is somehow involved with the suicide rate of cricketers is keenly disputed. Peter Roebuck and Mike Brearley insist that the game of cricket itself is not to blame.

“It is not cricket,’ Brearley says, “which causes suicides: people kill themselves for reasons that are internal to themselves and their histories.”

But Frith, who is the undoubted expert on this disturbing aspect of the sport, makes the point that cricket is a one-chance game that tears at the nerves of players who may be susceptible to these pressures: “Golfers, footballers, tennis players and boxers all have an assurance that they have a chance to recover from an early defeat in the game but cricket embodies uncertainty on the grand scale and on a relentless daily basis.”

I believe that there is something in this.

Anyone who has played cricket knows how stunning is the finality of a dismissal or a dropped catch. One minute you are out there batting, then you are walking back to the pavilion. If only you could have faced that ball again.

Even when a batsman is successful, he often tormented about the runs he could have scored. I remember still the high dungeon that Martin Crowe was in as he walked off the Basin Reserve in Wellington after scoring 299 against Sri Lanka.

He was extremely angry with himself that he had blown his one chance of scoring 300 in a Test innings.

A telling piece of ‘evidence’ in this controversy, in my view, is that the metaphors of cricket tend to be death metaphors. When a batsman is bowled he hears “the death rattle” of the broken stumps. He “departs the scene” as he makes his way back to the pavilion. The players carry their gear in their “coffins” and so on …

Sportsmen in other sports commit suicide, of course, but not at the rate of cricket players.

The once international rugby player who committed suicide that I am aware of is O.E. Bastard, a Springbok prop with an unfortunate name.

According to Frith, though, 4.12 per cent of cricket players in South Africa take their lives: in New Zealand the rate is 3.92 per cent: and in Australia 2.75 per cent. The suicide rate for British men is 1.07 per cent (and for cricket players in Britain 1.77 per cent).

If these statistics are valid then cricket does face as Frith points out, “this dreadful, hidden burden.”

He suggests that the authorities be aware of this.

The pressures the players endure, especially from their extensive travelling and the pressure to deliver results in their one-chance sport, need to be understood.

He believes, too, that former players should be encouraged to stay connected with the game through broadcasting, umpiring or coaching after they have retired.

And players who admit to having depression need to be treated sympathically by the authorities. This is happening, thankfully, in the case of Michael Yardy.

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Contact the following if you are in need of immediate assistance or talk to someone you trust:

Lifeline – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
For men of all ages: MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78

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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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