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Anguish of the Hidden Truth

Marcus Trescothick's England career finished prematurely as a result of depression.

We often forget that inside the men we watch playing the beautiful game is a human being. This is a person with feelings, emotions and anxieties. We find it quite difficult to see past the facade that some of these men adopt when on the playing field, and subsequently it is occasionally difficult to withhold your own attitude towards them at a particular moment. We often struggle to have sympathy with a cricketer in turmoil because we believe that he is ‘living the dream’ in our conception of utopia. Many of us would give anything to have the opportunity to play the game we love for a living, whilst also earning a healthy financial return. But sometimes these men have deep-seated distress. And quite often we will never find out.

I am not explaining the portrait of a batsman out of form, desperately seeking a remedy to his issues before he is flung to the wayside. Neither am I describing the difficulties a player faces when the spectators ruthlessly turn on him, or of a bowler struggling to locate his line and length, while being punished with boundaries marked against his name thereafter. These can be torrid times for a player, they may feel terrible inside and question if anything else could go wrong. Yet an unfortunate few suffer from a more profound mental state, and not one anyone wishes to experience.

Depression had, until the late 20th Century, been an undiscovered mental illness amongst sportsmen. From the recent cases it appears that cricket could be the most common sport for sufferers of this dreadful illness. Marcus Trescothick is perhaps the cricketer most synonymous with the disorder. He recalls his pain so vividly in his book, ‘Coming Back To Me’, that it seems unbearable, relentless and persistent. There have been other examples including Michael Yardy recently, and also those we will never know of.

However, the problem we, as fans, team-mates or coaches face is that the illness is undetectable. The people who so unluckily possess the illness inside them are often an enigma. In sport particularly depression may not actually affect the sportsman’s game at all, therefore resulting in no apparent external signs of illness. The outcome, through no fault of our own, is our ignorance which could, in some cases, exacerbate the damage of their symptoms, rather than cure it.

I am deliberately repeating the word ‘illness.’ This is one of the misconceptions about depression. It will not merely be stimulated by poor form, or by a technical fault which is preventing progression, or because you feel a bit down. It is a condition that is unpreventable, and has damaging effects which can be triggered through other negative occurrences in life, which we, as the public, rarely know of. In fact, externally, Trescothick was performing well when he first felt the signs of the illness, and Michael Yardy was playing for England when it became public. This is why the victim is often a surprising person, someone who few would pick out as unwell.

This illness is not, however, to be treated lightly. Unfortunately, the stress and anxiety can overwhelm a person to such an extent that they feel compelled to commit an act of suicide. David Frith’s book ‘Silence of the Heart’ tells the story of those unable to cope with life post cricket. The ending of playing the sport that someone has dedicated their life to can often be a trigger for depression. Cricketers are sometimes ill-equipped to deal with normal life, including basic decisions such as finding a job, which can subsequently stimulate a feeling of loss and hopelessness. This craving for being what they once were can occasionally be impossible to overcome.

Examples in Frith’s book include that of David Bairstow, father of current England wicketkeeper Jonny, who hanged himself after suffering from depression. Despite being a respected broadcaster depression took control, like it does for many others after the retirement from the game they love. Overall, the list is troublingly extensive; over 100 cricketers are listed over a period of 100 years. Though depression will not be the cause of all these deaths, it remains an alarming and staggering statistic.

There are cases depicted in Frith’s book that highlight the choice of cricket as seemingly the most common sport for depression sufferers. Cricket is mentally exerting, requiring extreme concentration for extended periods of time, in particular at the international or high county level. Hours of batting, fielding or bowling can affect players in alternative ways. The constant pressure faced by cricketers on the field of play is great. This may not be the direct cause of the depression; Trescothick actually states in his book that when playing cricket it acted as an escape from the torments in his life, that he actively practiced more than most to relieve the symptoms. Yet, the unwavering expectation can unknowingly take its toll. Many sports psychologists suggest the unique nature of cricket, perhaps attracting over-sensitive and melancholic personas, could be a contributing factor to a person’s depression.

The effects of the illness are huge and indubitable on a victims’ life. Marcus Trescothick could have been one of the greatest opening batsmen of all time if he had not been restricted to 76 Test matches. He was and still is flamboyant, aggressive and highly talented. Since his forced international retirement due to his illness he has continued to prosper as captain of Somerset, so much so that he has a stand named in his honour at Taunton. Trescothick has been the leading run scorer in a county season on countless occasions, and was a Wisden cricketer of the year in 2005.

Yet his depression still lingers. Trescothick did not travel with his county side to the Champions League in India this year, and in 2008 was forced to return early from the same competition due to his depression which is triggered and thereafter severely exacerbated far away from his family, but thankfully now manageable at home. He also failed to play at a competition in the West Indies last year for the same reason. This shows the durability and dreadful persistence of the condition that, even after so many years of recovery and stability, it still remains to disturb and sadly destroy lives.

The most poignant factor of depression though is that, quite often, it will be months or years before anyone knows or even suspects that someone may be suffering. Trescothick explained that, in his case, this was because until he had admitted to himself that he suffered from the illness, he was unable to overcome the dreadful implications. And, unfortunately, eradicating this state of denial is quite often the most difficult stage to accomplish, but the most necessary before any of the widely available assistance can be sought. In some cases, it can prove impossible, resulting in the unthinkable.

Trescothick also stated that he would attempt to conceal his symptoms and present a false front to others to ensure they did not suspect, especially considering he was living in the harsh, unforgiving world of professional sport. This subsequently adds to the feeling of isolation and loneliness and is part of the reason why Trescothick struggles far away from his family. It is this feeling compounded with desperation, anxiety and apprehension that makes depression such a dreadful illness. It is especially haunting to know that even some of our greatest heroes may be silently suffering, without help, desolate and in fear.

To find out more about depression in cricket David Frith’s book ‘Silence of the Heart’ and Marcus Trescothick’s story ‘Coming Back To Me: The Autobiography of Marcus Trescothick’ are widely available.

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