Off late, it has been very disturbing to read about such talented and entertaining cricketers as Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski have made themselves unavailable for selections in their national sides, due to “Mental Issues”.
Not that there haven’t been such cases before, but the frequency with which these issues have come to the fore in the last few days, is alarming. We would rather not talk about the current cases and adhere to the “Unwritten Code of Decency”. But it would be interesting to share with my readers some cases of the past, which would be of interest, as even today, many players go through the same pressures, and are always on the edge mentally due to them.
A sportsman is generally very popular, at least noteworthy, in the circle which plays, administers, or follows his/ her sport. Everything he/she does is watched closely and commented loosely on by all and sundry. In Cricket, especially in India, the pressures are huge. One or two good performances internationally, and 1.25 billion people are suddenly on you, wanting you to entertain them every occasion you enter on the field.
The pressures are not only from the Public, they are from within, to perform constantly, to be in the limelight, peer pressures of all kinds, to go with a lot of normal pressures which people like you and me face day in and day out. When you’re in professional sport, everyone on the outside assumes you are on a good wage, have a nice car, have a good flat. But the truth is, sport is a high-pressure job. If you don’t score your runs, take your wickets, you’re fighting for your contract. IPL such leagues have given the Indian and some overseas players good deal of financial security, but it doesn’t come with an allied insecurity about losing your contract due to even a couple of lackluster performances. And the pressure related mental issues are not a recent phenomenon, they have been around for quite a long time, and they won’t cease to exist, but can be properly managed. Since the early 1900s, when cricket started gaining popularity in the masses of Britain’s dominions, the problem has existed.
The first batsman to score 1000 test runs was Arthur Shrewsbury. When asked, which one player he would select to bat for his life, the great Dr. W.G. Grace had said, “Give me Arthur.” Shrewsbury was fairly successful in test match cricket. 1277 runs at an average of 35+, with 3 centuries and 4 fifties isn’t bad showing, considering that those were the days of uncovered wickets. He played for England from 1882 to 1893. He had, in 1879 found a sports goods firm called Shaw and Shrewsbury with his teammate Alfred Shaw, the great England Medium-pacer.
The success in county cricket was sinusoidal, invariably each crest followed by a deep trough. But business success offset that, and overall, life wasn’t bad at all for old Arthur. He lived in with his girlfriend Gertrude Scott, and they had a pretty harmonious relationship too. Financially, he wasn’t pressed. But then, so much success leaves a man expecting too much of himself. In the 1902 county season, aged 46, Arthur scored a whopping 1153 runs at an average of 52. The same year, Australia had toured England, but Shrewsbury wasn’t considered for selection. (It was Trumper’s debut tour, and he made quite an impression.
Shrewsbury complained of kidney pains during a match for Lenton United on 27 September, and during the winter he consulted various doctors and specialists who could discover nothing seriously wrong with him. During the spring his health started to improve, but it was unlikely that he would play county cricket in 1903. It seems that by then Arthur was convinced that he had contacted an irrecoverable illness, and was growing more and more frustrated each day.
On 12 May 1903 Shrewsbury bought a revolver from a local gunsmith. He returned a week later after having difficulty in loading the gun. The clerk found that Shrewsbury had the wrong bullets and supplied the correct ones. Shrewsbury went to his bedroom that evening and shot himself first in the chest and then, when that did not prove fatal, in the head. His girlfriend, Gertrude Scott, found him bleeding from a head wound and by the time a doctor arrived Shrewsbury was dead. At the inquest, held the following day, the coroner decided that Shrewsbury had committed suicide, his mind having been unhinged by the belief that he had an incurable disease. The coroner added that there was, however, no evidence to show Shrewsbury was suffering from a major illness.
Less than six months after leading his team to victory over England in 1898, Australian Captain Harry Trott endured a severe mental illness. While visiting his mother on 8 August 1898, Trott collapsed and lost consciousness. Later, on the train home with his wife, he had another convulsive fit and yet another at 10 pm that evening, in the presence of a doctor. Trott passed in and out of consciousness over the next four weeks, unable to work or even communicate. His supporters raised ₤453 to send him for two weeks at a private retreat at Woodend, a small town north-west of Melbourne. The treatment was unsuccessful and Trott continued to suffer from insomnia, memory loss and apathy.
Because Trott’s illness precluded his selection for the 1899 Australian team to England, the Australian captaincy passed to Joe Darling. On 8 May 1899, Trott was committed to the Kew Asylum, a psychiatric hospital in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
Trott was recorded as suffering “dementia” and “alcoholism”, although there is little empirical evidence for either diagnosis. Cricket writer Gideon Haigh suggests that his symptoms would possibly be identified in modern times as depressive psychosis and treated with anti psychotics or electro convulsive therapy. Doctors observed that Trott continually stood in one place, showing little interest in events around him. A doctor noted on Trott’s file: “Refuses to converse not appearing to be able to follow what is said to him. Answers questions in monosyllables. Does not rouse up when subjects are spoken of that formerly he was interested in.”Attempting to reach him, doctors sent Trott to play cricket, which he did in a “mechanical, indifferent fashion”.
In a departure from normal hospital procedure, he was allowed newspapers reporting the details of Darling’s Australian side in England; this left him unmoved. Trott’s friend Ben Wardill, the secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club, visited in November 1899 but Trott did not recognise him. A fellow patient, when released, wrote of Trott: “Here is a well-known cricketer, whom we once treated as a hero. But alas! Like everything else, times have changed and he is almost forgotten.”
Trott fought his was back, and continued playing cricket, and is dubbed by many as the most motivational captain Australia has ever had. A postman in his profession, Harry Trott died of cancer in 1917. 116 years later, another Trott was to retire from international cricket due to “not being able to negotiate the Stresses of International Cricket: Such was his depression due to stresses of International cricket, that he’s been on record saying, “Just briefly, I considered driving my car into the Thames or into a tree. That way I could get out of the ordeal.”.
Then, there was Frank Foster. A Wasim Akram mould of bowler, he was left arm, seriously quick, and always at the batsman’s ribcage. It is said of him, that when Jardine was looking at a way to stop Bradman from scoring heavily in the 1932-33 Ashes, it was Foster who pointed out to him that during his innings of 254 AT Lords in 1930, Bradman was distinctly uncomfortable against Larwood each time when the latter bowled at his ribcage. It is said that it was Foster who planted the idea of Bowling at Bradman’s body in Jardine’s mind. Jardine did so, and the 1932-33 Ashes infamously became known as the “Bodyline Series.” Foster seemingly insisted that he be included in the team to execute this plan, but Jardine didn’t budge, rightly so as Foster was 44 by then. After that, Foster’s life was “the story of a great fall” and excessive drinking, gambling and womanizing took it’s toll. The last years of his life were passed at a mental asylum, where he eventually died in 1958. His mental illness may not have anything to do with his cricket, but the inability of handle the ups and downs of fame, and an inflated ego, both due to cricket, led to his eventual mental illness.
When he was 8 years old, young Jonathan Bairstow lost his dad who was the ex- England Wicket-keeper, David Bairstow. Bairstow senior was competent in both, cricket and football, but was constantly out of the England team due to the presence of Allan Knott and Bob Taylor. After retirement from playing in 1990, Bairstow became a popular radio commentator. However, he engaged in arguments with the Yorkshire management, and also suffered from depression. In late 1997, David Bairstow took an overdose of tablets, and although he survived, a few weeks later he hanged himself at his home in Marton-cum-Grafton, Yorkshire. The coroner in the case recorded an open verdict, saying that he was not convinced Bairstow had meant to kill himself, and that his actions may instead have been a “cry for help”. Son Johnny albeit a bit late, has had a much successful association with cricket and England team, being in the team much consistently and setting the 2019 Cricket men’s world cup ablaze with his swashbuckling batting.
Marcus Trescothick, who returned abruptly to England during their 2006 tour to India was also diagnosed of “Clinical Depression.” There might be many more, but these ones came to fore. A few new about their mental issues, the others didn’t. But these cases do underline the fact that the sporting pressures can be dangerous when one is playing, and can even linger after the sporting life and come back to hit the sportsmen later in their lives.
We fans too have a responsibility towards our loved sportsmen in fighting their mental issues. The least we can do is to keep our expectations realistic, and look at our idols’ occasional failures with tolerance.
This is not a tall ask for fans, is it?