Tuesday, 26 November 2013

..........Of Mental Health & Sledging

I know you don't like cricket. Or at least, the majority of you probably don't. It's an acquired taste, requiring a level of patience and intellect that might not be attainable if your brain has been fried by I'm A Celebrity. But anyway, Jonathan Trott's departure from the England tour to Australia has thrown the issue of mental health back into sharp focus.

I like to think I know something about this. I've never been diagnosed with a 'stress related illness' but I have had crashing lows and sought counselling at certain points. The term 'stress related illness' almost feels like something specific to cricket in any case, following similar tour departures from Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy in the recent past. Depression is a more common term, but perhaps that is rather more taboo in the macho world of competetive international sport.

Whatever you want to call it, it usually starts with a trigger. It doesn't have to be anything that might ordinarily be considered majorly traumatic. It doesn't take a death in the family or the destruction of your house to feel depressed. But there is usually something, at which point the illness takes over and magnifies the trigger by a million gazillion per cent so that whatever it is that has kicked the whole thing off seems so much more important than it might have done otherwise.

Nevertheless the suggestion that 'sledging' had anything to do with Trott's illness seems far fetched. Australian batsman David Warner told a salivating press corps that Trott's dismissals in the first Ashes test were 'weak' and 'poor', an assessment which England captain Alistair Cook believed was 'disrespectful'. But while we are on the subject, sledging should only be allowed if it is funny. Australia captain Michael Clarke has just incurred a sizeable fine for telling James Anderson to 'get ready for a fucking broken arm'. This is a base level of playground bullying lacking even the merest trace of humour, and the fine is therefore justified. Regardless of what Shane Warne thinks. Cartainly it is not up there with James Ormond who, upon being told that by Mark Waugh that he was not good enough to play for England, retorted that at least he was the best player in his own family. Or Sir Ian Botham, when being asked by Rodney Marsh 'how's the wife and my kids' answered that 'the wife's fine, the kids are retarded'. Thinking of ways to enforce this a friend of mine came up with the idea of having a panel of comedians decide on which sledges are funny and which are not. He suggested that the panel should contain Frankie Boyle, a man who to my mind has no place in public life, witless arse that he is. So instead I suggest we leave it to the crowd. Announce the sledge over the tannoy and see if the crowd laugh. If they don't then you're getting fined. Seems fair enough to me.

The truth is we don't know what Trott's trigger was. None of us have any idea what is going on in his mind or in his private life which causes him to waft erratically at Mitchell Johnson's leg-side bouncers. We're told by the England management that Trott has been managing this condition ever since he came into the England team some four or five years ago. I have been managing my bouts of despression for far longer than that, and they have only improved in the last 12 months or so since I just stopped over-thinking everything. A consequence of that, however, is that life becomes a bit of a hamster's wheel. You get on when you wake up, pedal around furiously in an attempt to just get through the day, then you stop for a sleep. Work, eat, watch tv, sleep. But the point is it's a routine which leaves you precious little time to let your mind wander around dangerously.

Perhaps that is what Trott needs, or perhaps like Trescothick he needs not only counselling but medication. Mental health is very much an individual thing, with no set symptoms or cure. No one size fits all solution for every single sufferer. But people need to be tolerant of it, which has not always been the case in the sporting world. That old machoism again. Witness John Gregory's disbelief that Stan Collymore could ever be depressed given the size of his pay-packet. It's never as simple as that. Although we should probably remember that this is the same John Gregory who, upon being told by Dwight Yorke that he wanted to leave Aston Villa to join Manchester United, later reported that if he had had a gun he would have shot the Trinidadian striker. Really John? It's just a game.

Sport pales into insignificance when you can't be certain you are going to make it through the day without suffering a nervous breakdown. It did for me. It is no coincidence that I stopped playing basketball at a very difficult time for me personally. I've been called 'mentally weak' (among other things) for my troubles. I am not, clearly. I go through things every day that many people cannot imagine and there is little doubt that my problems are inextricably linked to my disability. How are able bodied people meant to understand that? Mental health problems are not the result of weakness, but of illness. Although my disability contributed to mine, Trott's problems show that it can happen to all sorts of individuals, with all sorts of different personal circumstances. We cannot make wild assumptions and generalisations with something so complex.

I never went back to basketball, and neither Trescothick nor Yardy played for England again following their episodes. Not to say that Trott will disappear from the England picture forever, but he faces a very tough battle to get back firstly to health, and secondly to the England batting order.

He might well decide that cricket isn't worth it.

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