We may as well cancel the Sheffield Shield as a proving ground for Test cricketers if this is the rationale to be used by the national selection panel, which at the moment constitutes only Langer and Hohns because Cricket Australia hasn’t gotten around to making the third appointment even though they have had several months to sort it out ahead of the international summer.
George Bailey and Michael Klinger are reportedly the only two left in the race, one a current player and the other just retired from Western Australian cricket.
Usman Khawaja has had a statistically slightly better start to the Australian summer than Bancroft and averages 60 in home Tests but hasn’t “improved quite noticeably”, so he was cut from the squad even though the first Test is at his home ground.
Bancroft’s scratchy 49 batting out of position at No.6 in the Australia A match versus Pakistan only came about because Nic Maddinson pulled out of the game for mental health reasons.
Bancroft’s further elevation to the national Test squad came about because young Victorian Will Pucovski, who played the match, made himself unavailable for Test selection during the course of the game after being dismissed for four off 15 balls. Pucovski has recent history of mental health and concussion issues.
Maddinson’s first-class form has been burgeoning since his move to Victoria last season and, after a false start in Test cricket against South Africa two years ago, it looked like he was growing towards greater cricket maturity and the real chance of being a consistent Test batsmen. His raw talent is unquestionable.
Glenn Maxwell was the first of the three players to withdraw from cricket, this time during the T20 series against Pakistan. Three top payers walking away when their games are peaking rather than failing, Maddinson and Pucovski for the second time in their careers, inside a couple of weeks begs the question of an epidemic of mental health problems in the national game.
Research currently being undertaken on professional cricketers has made some interesting findings. The question of greater media scrutiny that stalks players of many professional sports has been thrown up as a being like a pressure cooker that leaves little private time. Social media is omniscient; pass wind on public transport in Moore Park and you might get trolled from Old Trafford.
The scrutiny of contemporary sportspeople is frightening, a thousand times more pervasive than the 1980s or before. Back then, journalists on tours would not report anything outside cricket hours, the public had cameras with rolls of film that needed the chemist shop to develop into hard copies. Nothing was instant, feedback took time and that gave opportunity for consideration and moderation. Today it’s all knee-jerk, often from complete jerks.
The internet was an echo of the Cold War rather than weapon of the hacker or influencer – yet mental health issues affected about the same number of people. You just didn’t hear about it. In hindsight, I have played with teammates who had the symptoms of depression. We just told them to stop being “soft”, to “harden up” or “just get on with it”. Losing can make you unhappy but that is an altogether different beast to depression.
My personal introspection on depression in the clinical sense was when I was physically injured and faced the prospect of never playing the game again, even though I had another very worthy profession to fall back on. In the “amateur” days before full-time contracts in the mid-1990s, players who felt the game was too tough physically or mentally, who were scared of the next day’s play or the next game, who would revel in a rainy day, always had a “real” job to fall back on. They didn’t have to face the pressure of having cricket as a living, where a poor decision, a bad pitch or a lucky catch could be the end of a career.
Which is not to say that their depression dissipated; it was just removed from the cricket environment. There was one particular very talented player who had the skills to play Test cricket but never made it. We had the saying about him that “he’s only happy when he’s unhappy”. Teammates made light of his funks and his attitude, and it didn’t help.
Cricket is a game of tortuous, extended, mental toughness – minds not at their best are found out. Physical harm can follow mental errors. Fortunately, players today are encouraged to open up and talk and share – it’s a better time and place to be. That’s not to say that cricket itself has a particular problem, but it’s working hard on providing support and answers.
In recent times there has been a list of high-profile players, from cricket and other sports, both male and female, who have chosen to have a spell from their chosen games. They have faced their demons and will continue to do so with help of friends, family and professionals.
“Nothing in the world takes the place of persistence, talent will not”, as former US President Calvin Coolidge described the value of never “giving in”.
Meanwhile, the game goes on, and Test teams must be picked from the best available. Whether Cameron Bancroft fits that bill will face scrutiny at the Gabba.
Geoff Lawson is a cricket columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.