Cricket can sometimes be a killer of a game

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert


15 Have your say

    Related coverage

    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.

    Oldest | Newest | Most Recent

    The Crowd Says (15)

    • April 18th 2011 @ 9:53am
      Chris said | April 18th 2011 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      A very interesting article.

      I wonder if there has been any studies done comparing the different types of cricket (i.e. Tests, ODIs and T20). Perhaps the rate of suicide for drops for the shorter forms of the game as an incident is not as important. With the sheer number of limited overs game sbeing played, a chance for redemption for losing a wicket or dropping a catch is always just around the corner…

    • April 18th 2011 @ 9:53am
      Rob McLean said | April 18th 2011 @ 9:53am | ! Report

      I had a mate, who played for SA Country, who when dismissed would lose the plot for an hour or so. Firstly he would do the dummy spit. Then he would sit and fume in the rooms for half an hour, followed by sitting away from the group for a bit longer.
      The next morning, he would have a mate throwing balls to him – practicing the shot he got out on.
      I’m not sure if the fact he is an accountant reflects anything in his behaviour…

      • April 20th 2011 @ 12:47pm
        Bayman said | April 20th 2011 @ 12:47pm | ! Report


        Cricket is a funny game and can be even funnier.

        I well remember a fellow from our U13s getting comprehensively clean bowled and not just one stump but all three got bent. As he neared the boundary he tossed his bat about twenty yards and shouted, “That wasn’t effing out!”

        The rest of us were cacking ourselves and I managed to say, between fits of laughter, “Maybe not mate but from here it looked effing close!”

        When he reached the group sitting near the boundary his dad wandered up and asked if his son could just “Come over there a bit?” From about forty yards we could hear his dear old dad just give it to him with both barrels, “Don’t you ever…..” etc. and much more like that. More stifled laughter as he rejoined the group a chastened and more accepting batsman.

        If only there were more dad’s like that today!

        The boy, incidentally, went on to play first grade district cricket in Adelaide so he wasn’t a bad player.

    • Roar Guru

      April 26th 2011 @ 10:55am
      Greg Russell said | April 26th 2011 @ 10:55am | ! Report

      There is actually a very simple statistical test of Spiro’s psychological theory that the high suicide rate is linked to “the finality of a dismissal”. If this is correct, then the suicide rate should be much higher for batsman than for bowlers. If a bowler bowls a meat pie, he only has to wait one minute to get a shot at redemption and put the bad ball behind him. Not so for a batsman.

      Spiro also mentions the impact of a dropped catch. True. But at least with a dropped catch you are kept busy out in the field. It’s having to sit in the sheds for hours, possibly days, after a dismissal that does the damage if you are a batsman. The worst thing you can do if you have depression is be forced to think about something depressing without relief.

      Some responses to comments above:

      * “I wonder if there has been any studies done comparing the different types of cricket (i.e. Tests, ODIs and T20). Perhaps the rate of suicide for drops for the shorter forms of the game”.

      This question assumes that most of the suicides are amongst first-class cricketers. Is this true? I suspect most of the suicides are of players who do not play a lot of different lengths of the game. And even with first-class cricketers, one has to remember that T20Is are a very recent phenomenon and ODIs relatively recent.

      * “The old museum at the basin framed that infamous hole in the wall made by Crowe.”

      I have heard Martin Crowe interviewed about his dismissal on 299. If he is to be believed, what really annoyed him is that he got out to such a bad ball: it was well down the leg side, and somehow he managed to get a trickle through to the keeper.

      * “The next morning, he would have a mate throwing balls to him – practicing the shot he got out on.”

      This also describes Sachin Tendulkar, no less: he is well known for spending hours in the nets practicing against a delivery that just got him out.

    • November 13th 2011 @ 6:01pm
      Cricketer said | November 13th 2011 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

      “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. ”

      Eerie article given the events of the past 24hrs. In particular the attached comment.

    • November 24th 2011 @ 12:19pm
      Dave1 said | November 24th 2011 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

      There is no evidence cricketers commit suicide more than others. Its a furphy.

      This is a good article

      “…….This was based on two statistical ‘facts’:

      •That suicide accounted for 1.07 per cent of British male deaths.
      •That the rate among English cricketers is 1.77 per cent.
      There are problems with both these claims.

      Firstly the 1.07 per cent (based on 1998 UK data) was wrong, for reasons that Frith is not sure, but perhaps because inaccurate information was provided in the first place.

      The Office for National Statistics website has a free database that carries all the relevant information, much of it available to download in searchable spreadsheets. And a search today showed there were 264,707 male deaths in the UK in 1998, of which 4,039 were suicides, which equates to a 1.53 per cent male suicide rate in the UK in 1998, not 1.07 per cent.

      Secondly, that 1.77 per cent rate of suicides among English Test cricketers was arrived at by looking at 339 English Test cricketers – across all time – who had died by July 2000. Six of those 339 (or 1.77 per cent) had killed themselves.

      To base any fixed conclusion on such a tiny sample pool of a few hundred people spread over more than a century is risky. The data pool is just too small to be statistically reliable……..”

      “……………Somewhere in the region of 2,700 people have ever played Test cricket. The 23 suicides identified by Frith by 2001 equate to a rate of 0.85 per cent of that total. To be necessarily macabre to illustrate a point, there need to be almost as many suicides again amongst living Test players (at any stage of their lives) for the universal Test player suicide rate to become even slightly ‘abnormal’.

      And that 1.77 per cent Frith calculated in English cricketers has already fallen since 2001 – because there have been a number of deaths of English Test players but no suicides since Bairstow……”

    • March 19th 2013 @ 4:31am
      shakir hasnain said | March 19th 2013 @ 4:31am | ! Report

      Cricket is pale schizophrenia, protagonism given to a novelty mirror. And then the willow tree…. of course there is death in its rapture and reverie…what a beautiful game…God save those who play it with a little too much love

    Have Your Say

    If not logged in, please enter your name and email before submitting your comment. Please review our comments policy before posting on the Roar.