Just when we thought we’d have to do a detailed analysis of what went wrong at the Gabba, a story breaks that puts everything into perspective. Cricket is, after all, only a game. Depression and anxiety can be matters of life and death.
Post-mortems of the on-field action are probably a little tedious now anyway. How many times is it possible to say (a) England’s batsmen usually screw up the first test match of important tours (so Brisbane was hardly a surprise) and (b) any team in the world would be undone by genuine pace and bounce when it’s been playing on slow low pitches for over a year?
We can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about the weekend’s debacle, other than to point out that Graham Gooch is on thin ice as England’s batting coach. And if he isn’t, then he should be. With the exception of Ian Bell, every single member of England’s top seven has a declining average. Batsmen are supposed to get better, not collectively and individually worse.
On Gooch’s watch, England have failed to score over 400 in sixteen consecutive test innings now. What’s more, we’ve failed to make 200 plus in the first innings of the first test in five of our last nine overseas tours. That’s absolutely dismal. And we claim Australia’s batting is bad! Unless our key batters start performing soon, the cricket odds will be stacked against England for the rest of the series.
Now on to more important issues: poor old Trotty.
Nobody knows exactly what’s going on in Jonathan Trott’s private life (we might never know). All we can say with certainty is “we’re with you buddy – take care of yourself, and know that even if you never face another ball for England, you’ve had a great career and we’ll all remember your tenure as our number three fondly”.
As somebody who has some, albeit limited, experience of anxiety and depression, I know it’s all the worse for obsessive personalities. I’m not a psychologist, nor a cognitive behavioural therapist, but when I see Trotty scratching the crease every few seconds (and practicing his other somewhat obscure batting rituals) I think it’s a fair to assume he’s a pretty obsessive bloke.
The obsessive trait can work wonders for certain sportsmen – it makes them dedicated to their craft and can lift them to great heights – but sometimes it can take a mental toll. Just look at Jonny Wilkinson. Nobody hears about his dark times. When you’re a perfectionist, life is tough.
Because Trott seems like a thinker, and possibly someone who over-analyses his own emotions, he might not be cut out for touring anymore – in which case, like Marcus Trescothick, his international career is probably over.
This is awful news for the England cricket team, but it’s probably good news for Trotty himself. It’s so difficult to be away from one’s support network for such an extended lengths of time. Ashes tours last almost four months if you include the ODIs and T20 matches too. According to England’s itinerary, the last match is on 2nd February. What other sports place such ridiculous demands on it’s players?
However, rather than get into a discussion about why cricketers seem to suffer stress related conditions more than other sportsmen – we’ve heard all about Trescothick, Flintoff, Harmison, Yardy and Thorpe in recent years – I want to talk about why this often, if not always, happens on tours to Australia.
Speaking on Sky last night, Trescothick revealed he’d suffered a similar setback with anxiety on one of England’s tours to South Africa. With the help of the team’s excellent support staff, however, he was able to work through it. Indeed, he went on to have a prolific tour with the bat.
Unfortunately though, he found this impossible to do in Australia. When asked why, the admirably candid Tresco revealed that Australians, and in particular the media, made it too bloody hard.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Australia is an incredibly unforgiving place to tour. The Aussie print media are like feral dogs – Shane Warne described them as ‘the worst in the world’ last week (and he should know) – which is why they call a bloke ‘a smug Pommy cheat’ for daring to do what 99.9% of Aussie cricketers do anyway.
Yes, the English gutter press is hardly a shining light of morality, but according to Warne they have their say and move on to the next target. The Aussie media, however, are like a dog with a bone: they simply won’t let go when they’ve got their claws into someone.
When you add the most hostile fans in the world into the equation – on my first visit to the Gabba, I witnessed a group of ten-year-old boys giving Alan Mullally a volley of vicious abuse that would’ve made a football hooligan blush – it’s no wonder visiting cricketers suffer mental breakdowns of various kinds.
The majority of Aussie fans are good natured and humorous – so please don’t think this is a slight on Australian cricket in general – but there is definitely a minority that goes too far.
Meanwhile, the media treat visiting teams like an invading army that must be destroyed at all costs. Australians are welcoming and extremely hospitable people, so why do their media treat sports coverage like some kind of propaganda warfare – one in which averagely intelligent men (for that it surely what they are) look for perceived weaknesses to exploit, in the hope of influencing the result of series? It demeans the rest of their country.
One would have thought that journalistic integrity, and simply trying to write interesting articles in good English, would be their priority. Instead they prioritise getting under tourists’ skin like a school bully who packs a good punch, but invariable finishes bottom of the class in just about every subject that matters.
And then we inevitably move onto the subject of sledging. The key aspect, when assessing the merits of sledging, is ‘humour’. Sledging should have an element of wit, or at least attempted wit. Otherwise it just descends into thuggish abuse – the kind of which we’ve also witnessed from two supposed Australian role models in recent days: David Warner and Michael Clarke.
We’re not being naïve here. Clarke isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, cricketer to intimidate a batsmen. England do it too. However, where exactly is the wit, or intelligence, in telling an opponent, let alone a tailender, that he’s going to have his arm broken?
What’s more, what was Warner trying to gain by informing the Aussie press that Trott was ‘scared’ and ‘weak’. It shows no class whatsoever. It brings cricket down to the level of boxing – which is I suppose, if the events of last summer are anything to go by, the level Warner likes to operate at.
One really hopes that Warner had no prior knowledge of Trott’s off-field problems – although the condemnation his comments received from the cricketing fraternity, even before Trott left the tour, suggests that people within the game had an inkling all wasn’t well with England’s number three.
Of course, there will be some Australians (and even a few England fans) who read this and think ‘if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen’. They’ll argue that mental disintegration, or whatever you want to call it, is all part of the game. Maybe they have a point.
However, my view is that when strong likeable people really are unravelling mentally in the face of a sustained onslaught, things are getting out of hand. Basically, it’s time for cricket fans and journalists – and I should probably include the English media and elements of the Barmy Army in this – to tone it down a notch.
After all, who really wants to win by behaving like thugs? Who wants to win at all costs – even if the price is forgetting that cricket is, after all, a game that should be played in a certain spirit.
Should a country be proud when its collective cricketing community – its fans, its players, its media – send a succession of professional sportsman into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression? Cricket should be played hard, but within boundaries. The boundary lines have been crossed this past week.
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