Mental health battles facing our cricketers offer a broader lesson to us all


Those we hear about are the ones who hit these obstacles after they have reached the elite level and become public figures. What used to happen when high-profile cricketers suffered mental health problems was that they would either discreetly fade from the scene, or blow up like a supernova.

The most prominent example of the latter was Greg Chappell, who later confessed that ordering his brother Trevor to bowl underarm in a one-day international in 1981 was a public dramatisation of his private mental breakdown. The stigma would affect the Chappells for the rest of their lives; that stigma would have been less if we had all known that the underarm ball was not a cynical ploy but an inarticulate cry for help.

Greg Chappell played in the first generation of professional Australian cricketers and through his talent and personality seemed better prepared than just about anyone else. There was no social media, but there was plenty of media, and it and the public conveyed tremendous hostility to his action. Was burnout a factor? Chappell’s schedule that summer was relentless: six Test matches, 10 one-day internationals and the possibility of five more (which the underarm ball cut down to four), plus full home-and-away Sheffield Shield and domestic one-day programs. Those cricketers, who had grown up as amateurs, were suddenly playing more strenuous Australian summers than anyone before or since.

But Greg Chappell’s meltdown was only a surface indicator of a darker, deeper pattern.

In England, sporting professionalism and its ills had a longer history. In 1990, journalist David Frith published the book ‘By His Own Hand’, an exploration of the thesis that professional cricketers took their lives at double the rate of the general population. The statistics did not necessarily stand up, but the notion that something peculiar to cricket contributed to this end was persuasive. Frith said: “It is uncertainty day-in and day-out, that plays a sinister beat on the soul … Matches, big or small, take a long time to unfold. Perhaps having endured a long journey to the ground, a batsman can stand for hours in the field envisaging what fate might await him … Is it not likely that years of this sort of apprehension have a lasting effect on personality?”

Great gifts were no protection. Frith wrote about some of the greats of cricket’s golden age, such as Andrew Stoddart, Albert Trott, Arthur Shrewsbury and Sidney Barnes, who all took their lives. In a 2001 update called ‘Silence of the Heart’, Frith added David Bairstow, father of the current England player Jonny. Frith’s books started conversations about the inherent dangers of cricket, which the younger Bairstow would later address most bravely of all.

Glenn Maxwell has yet to set a date for his return from a mental health break.Credit:AP

So the mental dangers of cricket have been around long before social media and concussion tests. Cricketers themselves know these dangers better than anyone outside, and New South Wales’s Moises Henriques, by speaking about his own struggles with depression, was revealing symptoms that a great many of his colleagues could identify with.

Perhaps it would be wrong to focus too much on cricket. More and more footballers, tennis players, basketballers, swimmers and cyclists, sportspeople of every nation, race and gender, are accepting that the inner self is just as susceptible as bones and muscles are to injury. There is a possibility that what is really bad for mental health is not a particular sport but full-time professionalism itself. You could argue that playing games was never meant to consume a person’s entire life. The elite are those who get stuck with it, who have sacrificed education and life experience to commit to their game, who no longer enjoy what they play, but who, when they look for an exit, find that all the conventional doors are blocked.

Cricket Australia and the state associations will be doing some serious work on why Maxwell ceased to enjoy his cricket when he was starring for his country; and why Maddinson and Pucovski hit their inner hurdles precisely when they might have been on the cusp of representing Australia.

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What is it about that environment, internal and external, that causes these reactions? And – if we accept that all mental health issues lie on a spectrum, rather than on two sides of a binary question – how are other players coping? Who else needs help? These questions supersede all others in cricket, because the consequences supersede sport.

There is little doubt that Maxwell, Maddinson, Pucovski and Henriques have all suffered in individual ways with unique sets of circumstances, so there should be qualifications around grouping them together. What they have done together is to set a precedent and say that this can mustn’t be kicked down the path. It must be addressed right now.

This is a sombre setting for the beginning of the Test cricket summer, but it will be a sombre week. During the Brisbane Test match, the fifth anniversary of Phillip Hughes’s passing will be remembered. Sport is dangerous, inside and outside. And this week has also seen the eighth anniversary of the passing of Peter Roebuck, who, as ever, deserves the last word.

Roebuck, as it happened, wrote the foreword to the first edition of David Frith’s book. His advice to cricket people applied then, it applied in 2011 and 2014, and it resonates more than ever in 2019: “Be gentle with yourselves, my friends, and do not expect more of life than it can give.”

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