It’s horrible when you think about it. Cricket begins, as every other game ever does, as fun. And indeed, even as you grow older and the game becomes more intense, it should always remain fundamentally so.
But for some people, somewhere along the line, something changes.
In David Frith’s book, The Silence Of The Heart, he claims that cricket experiences more mental illnesses—and tragically, suicides—than any other sport.
What is it about cricket? What is it that attracts individuals prone to such tendencies, or indeed, that engenders such feelings? Feelings that Mike Brearley once described as "darkness, pointlessness, worthlessness; a black dog, perhaps, or a nuclear winter of the soul."
While cricket, of course, brings joy to billions of people, there is, wound deep into the very fabric of the sport, a great deal of sadness.
Cricket is only superficially a team game. Ultimately it is constructed by a plethora of individual battles, and when such situations are run parallel with the gaping time-span of matches, there is circumstance enough for soul-searching introspection.
For some, such individuality is part of cricket’s appeal, for others it is a hidden facet of the game, only perhaps perceived when it is felt.
Many lonely hours can be spent in the outfield, paradoxically in the game but separate from the game, engulfed by self-doubt and worry, waiting for the chance to rectify failure or find form. And even then, the galling yet enchanting nature of batting is that you only get one chance.
One chance to correct your physical and emotional turmoil, then it’s over.
Perpetuating such self-rumination is the quantifiable nature of individual performance. Few team sports lend themselves to such individual assessment as cricket. Runs scored, runs conceded, wickets taken, catches taken—they are all tangibly recorded, and all succinctly comparable.
In this regard cricket lends itself to self-deprecation, and self-deprecation that is numerically justifiable.
But it’s not just the brooding self-evaluation of cricket that forges bonds with psychological problems. The incongruity of the team-individual relationship spawns bizarre emotions and circumstances.
As Ed Cowan once wrote: "Your team may win, but more often than not, you are not even going to be partly responsible if they do."
The joy of victory in this regard—despite what players will claim regarding the nature of them—are rarely complete for the individual and the team and, as such, players are constantly grappling with form and victory. The perfection of achieving both is frustratingly but alluringly rare.
The poet and novelist, Patrick Kavanagh, in his essay, The Mystery of Cricket, wrote about such perfection seeking:
Like poets, cricketers spend unimaginable hours doing something as near pointless as possible, trying to dig an elusive perfection out of themselves in the face of an infinite number of variables, and as a result a large proportion of their lives belongs to the realm of the mystical. Like poets, their faces are deeply engraved by introspection - all cricketers seem prematurely lined - because they are as deeply locked in a struggle with themselves as they are with the opposition.
The affiliation between mental illness and cricket is not a new one; long have the two been intertwined.
But forgoing the impact of the information age, and the transparency that comes with it, Frith, writing in 2000, claimed that the number of cases of mental illnesses in cricket rose exponentially in the final decade of the 20th century.
There is thus a modern development to this intrinsic problem, and indeed, it’s harder to look further than the pressurising effect of modern scheduling and the mass media.
Murali Kartik, who spoke to Anand Vasu for a piece in The Nightwatchman titled The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cricketer, revealed how he never spent more than a cumulative month in his own bed for five consecutive years: "Can you imagine what it’s like only being in your own home for less than a month in the whole year, spread out over three or four trips?"
As the title of the piece posits, "lonely" is the word that comes to mind.
Then, of course, there is the increasingly pervasive omniscience of the media and the hyperbole that it feeds off. This week’s case of Jonathan Trott leaving England’s Ashes tour due to a stress-related illness was arguably a result of the ubiquitous furore surrounding both the form of Trott himself and the manufactured sense of importance lent to the series by newspapers, websites, television and radio.
Such a problem is, of course, not limited to cricket, although it is an ever-more significant causation.
But what is particularly intriguing about Trott’s case is that he had been battling his problems for years. His departure wasn’t fundamentally caused by pressure, pressure was merely what tipped him over the edge.
And therein lies the greater truth, and indeed tragedy of the problem; modern scheduling and the media may well cause more players than previously to suffer from mental illness, and indeed, admit to suffering, but in many cases the seeds of the trouble have already been sown.
Cowan has boldly written that "few who know the game could argue against the notion that cricket contains triggers for depression," and it’s hard to disagree with him.
Cricket does seem to have an involuntarily chthonic fellowship with mental illness. And while understanding and appreciation of such problems can only increase and improve, it appears almost ineffably preordained that cricket and mental illness will forever be fatefully bound.