The fifth man
Wisden radically chose to pick four cricketers of the year for 2010. But they could have gone further and picked a player who showed immense courage off the field
April 20, 2011
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Steve Davies: His decision to come out as a homosexual just may give heart to other cricketers who have stayed in the closet for fear of negative reactions © Getty Images
Related LinksNews : Steven Davies reveals he is gay
Players/Officials: Steve Davies | Stuart Leary
As a statement of heartfelt principle, it defied argument. As one who holds the game dearer than anyone I have ever met, Scyld Berry's decision to break with tradition and trim Wisden's Cricketers of the Year by 20% was worthy of at least four cheers. As a departing gesture from an editor who occupied cricket literature's loftiest throne with distinction, if all too briefly, it was anything but empty.
It was entirely in keeping with Berry's brazen approach to innovation (we are talking about Wisden, which until the 1990s had moved with all the urgency of a constipated snail). On debut in 2008, he commissioned no fewer than nine past or present players to write essays, reflecting his desire to make the yellow bible "more of a cricketers' almanack"; among his quintessential quintet of 2009 he dared to name Claire Taylor, a woman; now, amusingly yet astutely, he has dubbed the Flower-Strauss axis "the Andocracy".
This final snook at convention also emphasised Berry's zero-tolerance of match-fixing and match-doctoring (as we henceforth ought to de-dignify the crime known as spot-fixing). Nor was it cocked easily. As David Hopps put it with typical erudition in the Guardian, Berry "was torn between not wishing to stigmatise… ahead of a criminal trial… and the wish to pass moral judgement on a tainted cricketer". And no, he undermined his cause not a jot by electing not to mention Mohammad Amir by name (learned friends were doubtless looking over his shoulder, though perhaps he simply couldn't bring himself to type it, such was his disappointment). But he still didn't go far enough.
Some will maintain that, while he was about it, he should also have removed the names of Mohammad Azharuddin and Saleem Malik from the scroll of past Cricketers of the Year (fortunately, Hansie Cronje was never so honoured). To this bonfire of the insanities many would add Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, whose willingness to trade information, however mundane, for crisp greenbacks remains an especially thorny issue for subcontinental aficionados, and justly so. To dwell on this budding Hall of Infamy, though, is not terribly constructive.
No, my small, almost shame-faced misgiving lies with the opportunity Berry missed to celebrate one of the grand old game's proudest yet neglected moments. It may have been overshadowed by the World Cup (the timing, in other words, was pretty much perfect, ditto the way the "Andocracy" handled the affair) but Steven Davies' courage in coming out to his England team-mates last October, and then taking his homosexuality into the public arena in late February, the first active professional cricketer so to do, is worthy of our gratitude and admiration every bit as much as the alleged misdeeds of certain Pakistanis warrant our dismay.
Context is all, and the British context is particularly illuminating. Look at the major team games, where the deterrents are greatest. The only active openly gay professional rugby player from these isles has been Gareth Thomas, a Welshman who bared all in 2009 while winding up his illustrious career. His lone footballing counterpart, Justin Fashanu, was tormented by his manager, Brian Clough, and ultimately committed suicide. Jon Amaechi, one of the few Britons to bounce his way to the NBA, came out only after retiring. As did Alan Hansford, the lone county cricketer to declare his homosexuality. Fuelled by testosterone and oiled by machismo, professional sport remains a haven for the homophobe.
Writing in the Guardian under the nom de plume "The Secret Footballer", an anonymous English professional recently contended that integrating one's gayness into a dressing room need not be fraught with insurmountable problems. "I'm pretty sure a gay player would have few problems coming out to his team-mates if he were offered a hypothetical 'nobody outside the team will ever find out' clause. It isn't because we're a superior breed… it is because we're all about looking after ourselves and, consequently, we try not to get too involved with other players' trials and tribulations. The changing room is a very harsh place to survive - say what you like about footballers' lack of intelligence (and people often do), the banter is razor-sharp and anything out of the ordinary is seized upon in a flash. But this is precisely the reason why a gay player would feel comfortable coming out here. A footballer is a footballer, it doesn't matter if you are black, white, straight or gay, players are at ease in this environment, where they are used to piss-taking."
It was that pretence, that contradictory double existence, that Davies couldn't bear, but what of those who lived in less tolerant times and felt they had no option but to endure?
In soccer, where audiences and emotions run higher, it is the fans, rather than team-mates, who do most to induce hesitancy. Anton Hysen, an American-bred, Swedish professional who smacked all manner of gobs by coming out last month ("When you consider dumping a supermodel you know you are gay"), told the BBC's Tim Franks about his first brush with hate mail: "I just got mail from somebody who lives around here [Gothenburg]. He said, 'I'm never gonna come to your games again because you got a ****** on your team.' It was hate mail. He started like this: 'Hey you ugly fag, I'm not going to watch your games anymore because you have ruined my life. I'm not going to watch football no more.' I'm like, okay, what do you want me to do? Do you want me go cry in a corner for you? I don't get it."
Is this is a factor in the reluctance of cricketers, especially those from the more homophobic societies, to out themselves? Perhaps. More significant, as Davies was at pains to stress, it was the uniquely claustrophobic demands of the all-lads-together touring life that he found impossible to come to terms with, forcing his hand. "If I am brutally honest," he admitted, "I've never enjoyed touring because of my secret and having to conceal my sexuality. My friendships with the guys would reach a certain level, then I'd have to take a step back. A two-week tour would feel like two years for me. It was really tough. Cricket was my escape. When I was playing cricket I was at my happiest because all I had to worry about was getting runs and taking catches."
The next test, the ultimate test, will be the opposition. Or rather, the opposition captain. Will they give explicit instructions to their charges not to use the g-word (or h-word or p-word or whatever) when sledging him? Will they abrogate their responsibilities and leave it up to the individual conscience? To dismiss this as anything less than a delicate matter would be to drastically underestimate the difficulties faced by those forced into a life of pretence, let alone those who make giant leaps for sportingkind.
It was that pretence, that contradictory double existence, that Davies couldn't bear, but what of those who lived in less tolerant times and felt they had no option but to endure? One can only guess at their identities (and there has been no shortage of conjecture on the county circuit, the subjects numbering at least one captain and a Test player), but one who may conceivably have had to divide himself in this torturous manner was Stuart Leary.
An allrounder's allrounder from Cape Town, the popular South African distinguished himself for Kent CCC and Charlton Athletic FC between 1951 and 1971 but took his own life in 1988. In By His Own Hand, a brave and tender study of cricketing suicides, first published in 1990, David Frith mentions Leary's fondness for resting a hand on a colleague's knee whenever team photos were being snapped. At the time of his demise - "according to three people who knew him" - Frith depicts him as "not only apprehensive at the nationwide investigation into juvenile vice but feared he was infected by the dreaded disease AIDS". These exhibits prove nothing, of course, but how suggestive they sound. And how dreadfully sad.
Now Davies has had the cojones to tread fresh, cleansing, honest ground. Others, at all levels and on other sporting fields, will be emboldened and inspired, not least by the mature and relatively sober response that greeted his coming out. But while Mike Atherton claimed it was no hardship for the touring press corps in Australia to keep schtum about Davies' revelation to his team-mates because it was "no big deal", this diminishes the wicketkeeper's dilemma. It was a big deal. A very big deal. To do what Davies did, to be the first over the top, was one of sport's more heroic acts.
That's why he should have been Wisden's fifth man. No, that heroism did not occur during the English season (hence Alastair Cook's omission from the 2012 fivesome). Yes, it would have meant waiving the rules - but hadn't Berry already done that by nominating a quartet? Memo to his successor, Lawrence Booth: please make amends.