Funny game no laughing matter

Until recently, the cricketers best known to be crippled by mental health issues were nearly all English. Suddenly, it’s Australians, too. For some, this is confounding. “Why are Australian cricketers suddenly all soft?” asked an acquaintance the other day, half in jest, half genuinely bewildered.

Really, it’s only that we’re now hearing from those who would not have dared to speak up previously. It’s generational, and hallelujah to that. In footy, a more open polity has been found to be not only manageable, but a secret to success. An open secret in fact.

Illustration.Credit:Jim Pavlidis

But there’s another aspect. Footballers who take mental health time-outs typically are struggling for form anyway. It all becomes too much. By contrast, cricketers Will Pucovski, Glenn Maxwell and Nic Maddinson all are at or near the top of their games.

Why? Psychologist Phil Jauncey proposed three reasons this week: a too narrow focus in the game’s cloistered pathways, greater and more immoderate scrutiny than ever via the blessing/curse of social media, and proliferation of fixtures. I would add to that intensification: once, some games were for beer money only, but now they are all for sheep stations. It’s only for ultras now.

There are no easy solutions. Re social media, it is not just how this generation communicates, but socialises. It’s a gauntlet they have no choice but to run. Re the surfeit of games, a chicken and egg syndrome applies. Players say there is too much cricket, but go and play in their holidays. Authorities mouth platitudes about too much cricket, but continue to stage new events. In both cases, you don’t need ball-tracking to follow the lure.

Perhaps even more fundamental to an understanding of what has changed in cricket’s psyche is what has never changed: the game’s unique formulation. More than any other sport, it is predicated on failure. Less than ever is this recognised in the discourse.

A batsman is only ever one ball away from the end. It doesn’t even have to be a very good one, and he cannot get it back. A bowler does get a bad ball back, but sometimes that is the complication. The failed batsman’s fate is that he has to go, the failed bowler’s that he has nowhere to go.

Even a very good batsman is going to be out more than he is in. Even a very good bowler will be off more than he is on. That’s a lot of institutionalised nothingness. The rest of the time they all spend in the dressing room, sometimes days of it at a time, or tooling around in the outfield. A slips fieldsman might stand there all day and not have one ball come to him.

I know, of course, that there are many other subtle involvements, and a continuous moral involvement. That’s fine when you’re fine.

On the evening of day four in Manchester this year, I bumped into David Warner into the lift, and said something to the effect I’d best not ask him how he was. “I’m fine,” he replied. “We’re going to win a Test match tomorrow.” But he is in every way an exception.

It’s the hardest game to conquer, which makes the conquests gratifying but rare. It takes your all. So whether the game is playing on your mind, or something beyond the game is playing on your mind while you’re trying to play the game, in the lulls and longueurs the emotions are bound to pool and swirl and sometimes overflow. It was always said that this was character-building. But for some it was and is character-destroying. Previous generations were conditioned to shut up about it. This one won’t.

It’s a funny game, cricket. But sometimes, it’s not.

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