Cricket can sometimes be a killer of a game

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert


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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.

    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

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (15)

    • April 17th 2011 @ 10:49am
      Rob McLean said | April 17th 2011 @ 10:49am | ! Report

      A thought provoking yarn, thanks.
      You can add Shaun Tait to the list of those in recent times who’ve endured depression.
      I was only discussing the cricket suicide topic with a friend recently, they didn’t believe me when I said how much of an issue it is. I will forward this piece on to them.

      • April 18th 2011 @ 12:11am
        Bayman said | April 18th 2011 @ 12:11am | ! Report


        I recommend the two Frith books, “By His Own Hand” and “Silence of the Heart”. It’s been years now since I read them but from memory “Silence” is an updated version of the first book.

        It is quite amazing how many cricketers of note have suicided. Some of the names will surprise you.

    • April 17th 2011 @ 10:56am
      Aljay said | April 17th 2011 @ 10:56am | ! Report

      I had absolutely no idea that percentages were this high.

    • Columnist

      April 17th 2011 @ 4:14pm
      Spiro Zavos said | April 17th 2011 @ 4:14pm | ! Report

      Sir Richard Hadlee is another well-known cricketer who suffered from depression, At one stage in his career he went to the Cook Islands to get away from everything and to try and clear his head from depressing thoughts.
      There is a biography of Sir Donald Bradman, too, that tries to link his absences from Test duty, as in the first Test in the famous Bodyline series, to psychotic reasons.

    • April 17th 2011 @ 8:59pm
      MikeM said | April 17th 2011 @ 8:59pm | ! Report

      Surely those suicide percentages cannot be right?
      Is there a zero missing?

    • April 17th 2011 @ 10:40pm
      Willsnz said | April 17th 2011 @ 10:40pm | ! Report

      The old museum at the basin framed that infamous hole in the wall made by Crowe. That 300 has become a bit of a burden on nz cricket players. I can think of a few that have got close… Young, Fleming, Astle Sinclair, Ryder. No cigar yet.

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    • April 18th 2011 @ 12:02am
      Bayman said | April 18th 2011 @ 12:02am | ! Report


      Fortunately the player in question is still alive and well but I well remember the former umpire Colin Egar telling a story about Ken (K.G.) Cunningham, the South Australian all-rounder of the sixties.

      Cunningham mishit a ball to point/gully and was angry with himself. Four or five overs later Egar was surprised to hear Cunningham saying, “Geez, Colin, I can’t believe I missed that one”. Egar asked “Which one was that KG?’ and was amazed to hear Cunningham say, “That shot through point a few overs ago.”

      Where most players would simply have “moved on”, Cunningham was still obsessing over something which was past and he had absolutely no control over. Egar suggested events like this might explain why Cunningham never quite made it to the international level (although he did tour NZ in 1967 with Les Favell’s Australian 2nd XI).

      It may also point to the obsessive nature of many cricketers with their strange rituals and superstitions. Perhaps the nature of cricket appeals to those with a quirky nature. Obsessive behaviour would not take much to shift to a depressive outcome. The game is essentially a lonely one, especially for the batsman, and perhaps there are those who simply misunderstand the requirements and cannot cope with the reality.

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