The walk to the crease is a long one. There is so much that can go wrong. Even before you get to the middle. Not easy on a good day, if you are a batter struggling with form, the walk can feel like a marathon. Every step will pose a new question, every breath a new worry.
When Jonathan Trott quoted stress as the reason for leaving the 2013-14 Ashes, he followed Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy as England players leaving overseas tours in the past ten years. But then, every sport has stresses. Every sport will produce struggles. If that’s true, why do more cricketers seem to stumble and quit at the highest level?
“I think the nature of the sport means that players are away on tour, or travelling a vast amount of the time.” Russell Discombe is a lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester, working in cricket for the past 15 years: “Cricketers are used to living in hotels and having to make do with Skype or phone calls to loved ones for a large amount of the Summer, if not year round.”
The reality is, we’ve heard all this before. Why, despite years of coverage, does nothing appear to be changing?
Russell describes cricket as a “unique sport” when it comes to the length of tours, but believes the concerns do not stop with visiting foreign countries. He explains: “You are an individual within a team environment. You are part of the team, yes, but there is a lot of pressure for you to produce individual performances. It is also a lot easier [nowadays], with stats for example, for the media and fans to pinpoint players that might be letting the team down.”
The format hasn’t changed, the sport hasn’t altered, and therefore the problems still occur.
Does the combined pressure of being away from families for long periods of time and being out of nick in the public eye make cricket mentally a tougher sport than others? Russell pauses for a moment to consider that: “That’s a hard question to answer. The game is much longer so you might argue that this is more challenging than other sports.”
When this question has been approached in the past, the tendency has been to look at cricket and where cricket can go wrong, rather than compare it to other sports. A comparison with other team, and individual, sports could be necessary to understand as to why cricketers face more battles.
Again, Russell considered this for a minute before answering: “I think all of the on-field challenges are very similar. You still have an opposition doing their best to try and beat you, and you still need to be mentally prepared to perform.” This would imply there is something fundamentally different about cricket, which Russell goes on to explain: “Having said that the games can last for up to five days, so the ability to manage concentration – not switching on and off – is vitally important.”
Concentration. It’s the buzzword of cricket psychology. Alastair Cook, England’s highest run scorer of all time, is renowned for his concentration whereas the opening partners he’s had since Andrew Strauss retired have all suffered from vital lapses in it at crucial moments.
Retaining concentration for one ball is a little thing, however, when repeated for hours on end can become a huge problem. It’s along this path where Russell believes cricket is fundamentally different to other sports.
“I do feel that there are a lot more organisational stressors placed on cricketers. Things such as travel, living in hotels, living with teammates, short contracts, training all winter indoors, the hectic schedule, switching formats etc. These can all impact on the mental health of the individual. They might seem like small things but after years of doing this they can be impactful.”
Short contracts are an interesting factor. Rarely mentioned in most discussions regarding mental struggles, Russell believes they bring uncertainty, explaining: “Unless you are a well-established player or international you might go through your career and not receive a contract longer than two years.”
This factor is made more worrying given Russell’s belief about when complications are more likely to manifest: “I think these issues can happen at any point during a career. However, I believe they are particularly prevalent during transitions within the game. Changing or uncertain times can certainly add pressure or worries to the players.”
Russell points out that depression can have a disastrous effect on a player’s career, adding: “It can bring careers to a premature end.” And that is a terrifying prospect, given that Russell believes not every sufferer is aware of his or her problems.
Why is this? “I think in general the public knowledge of mental illness is very poor, and there is a lack of awareness and stigma attached to mental illness.” Russell adds that more education is needed. He even makes hints during our conversation that this is necessary within the game itself.
A, not entirely unexpected, recurring theme during my chat with Russell was the issue of family. Touring takes the player away from their, sometimes young, family, and it is the family who has to deal with the brunt of the illness. This means a stress-related illness can have a negative effect on life at home.
“Mental illnesses don’t just affect the on-field performances; these issues encompass all aspect of the individual’s life.” Russell explains: “It can affect relationships, jobs/careers; sleep patterns, general health and fitness etc.”
On top of his lecturing, Russell is a coach at a local cricket club, where he also plays regularly. As part of these roles he has played with, and coached, many youngsters looking to make their way in the game.
I asked whether he thought the fact that cricket publically struggles with mental health is putting children off taking up the sport. In positive news, he wholeheartedly believes it doesn’t, but warns that more needs to be done.
“I feel that numerous younger players view travelling as one of the exciting ‘perks’ of the sport. They often don’t realise, however, that the novelty of it and being away from family can soon wear off. I think we could do more to educate younger players about cricket’s stressors.”
So, why do cricketers seem to struggle more than other sportspeople? When disclosing their troubles, Russell doesn’t believe that cricketers are necessarily more honest than other athletes. So, this could mean that the answer lies with the unique nature of the sport. This may lead to challenges that other athletes don’t face. While it can be said about most sports, the difference in cricket is, as Russell mentioned, the organisational stressors stemming from long tours and three formats.
From the travelling involved with international cricket, to the media pressures that come with being out of nick, to the short contracts handed out to the young professionals right down to just switching formats. Through the eyes of a psychologist, cricket’s problems are prevalent everywhere and at every level of the sport.
Russell clearly does not believe that cricketers are born more vulnerable to mental illness. However, for every bad shot, or every drop, the walk to the middle gets longer, the struggles, as Russell referred to, become greater. Yet, the question still remains – how do we help those who are suffering? Is the sport doing enough? How do we make sure that another promising career doesn’t come to a devastating, premature end?