A Clear Blue Sky

It was Saturday and the sky was overcast. Not ideal conditions for playing cricket.

We drove to the local cricket ground. We were able to park the car around the fence line, providing an uninterrupted view of the playing field. There were few spectators so there was no hurry to find a suitable place.

I had some sympathy for the batsmen. When the light is dull, it is difficult to pick up the flight of the ball, particularly against a backdrop of tall pines or ageing cypress as was the case on this occasion.

Our son Adam was playing for the Tyabb IV’s eleven. He opened the bowling. He didn’t terrorise opposing players with his pace but relied on subtle variations in line and length to keep the batsmen in two minds. That’s the essence of good bowling, patiently probing, looking for a weakness in technique. Adam won a trophy that year for his efforts with an average of 19 runs per wicket.

Adam saw us on the sidelines and acknowledged our presence with a wave. He wasn’t a particularly demonstrative person, choosing to go about his business in a quiet manner.

Memories connect us to our loved one, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of their life. Memories provide consolation, bringing the person closer. Some memories are difficult, reflecting the challenges our loved one faced. The critical question is how we will remember them.

Researcher Professor Brene Brown has interviewed many people who have experienced trauma and loss. She says,

“The memories that people who have experienced tremendous loss held most sacred were the ordinary, everyday moments.”

I shared Adam’s love of cricket. I have happy memories of our backyard games, the willing contest, the broken windows and the irate neighbours.

Some recent research suggests a link between cricket and increased suicide risk.

In his book, Silence of the Heart, David Frith, a former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, explores the relationship between cricket and suicide. His central thesis is that the game promotes the thought patterns and anxiety levels required to tumble people into the desperate hole of depression. He found the suicide rates of cricketers in England, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia to be higher than the national average.

Frith reflected on whether the game of cricket has a unique capacity to destabilise its players. He says,

“Cricket is a one-chance game that tears at the nerves of players who may be susceptible to these pressures… Cricket embodies uncertainty on the grand scale and on a relentless daily basis.”

Former cricket writer and commentator, Peter Roebuck, who later took his life, says,

“Cricketers are vulnerable because the game attracts sensitive men of aesthetic temperament, the very men who are, in the end, least well served by it.”

Writer Suresh Menon argues that cricketers face greater stress and pressure than other sportsmen as a single error can swing matters and determine careers. He says,

“Only superficially is cricket a team game. It is an individual game and a lonely one. The player has to work out his own solutions in his playing days and after retirement train himself not to dwell on the past too much.”

Not everyone accepts the argument that the nature of cricket itself is somehow involved with the suicide rate of cricketers. Mike Brearley, the former England captain, says,

“It is not cricket which causes suicides: people kill themselves for reasons that are internal to themselves and their histories.”

Twenty-three international test cricketers have taken their lives including Australians Jack Iverson and Sidney Barnes. Their deaths are attributed to factors such as depression, relationship breakdown, financial issues and prolonged illness.

David Frith suggests cricket authorities need to better understand the pressures the modern day players endure, especially from their extensive travelling and the pressure to deliver results in their one-chance sport.

Jonny Bairstow, the son of the former England wicketkeeper David Bairstow, is a wicketkeeper-batsman who has become a force to be reckoned with in England’s middle order. In 2016 he set a new record for the most test runs and most dismissals by a wicketkeeper in a calendar year.

In his memoir, A Clear Blue Sky, Bairstow, in collaboration with award-winning writer Duncan Hamilton, shares his life away from cricket. It is a story about his family, about grief, and about determination and the will to overcome.

One reviewer summarises the challenges faced by Bairstow in overcoming his loss. He says,

“When Jonny was just 8 years old, his father took his life. Jonny discovered his body when he got in from school. David ‘Bluey’ Bairstow was an England and Yorkshire cricketing legend, “ebullient, extrovert, and hugely popular” and with a zest for life. Just 46 years-old, David suffered from depression, at a time and within a culture when male mental health problems weren’t talked about or acknowledged.

Overnight Jonny’s life was changed. He not only had to contend with the painful reality of his father’s death but also the diagnosis of his mother with a particularly aggressive form of cancer just a matter of weeks before. These months defined Jonny as a man – defined his toughness and grit and fuelled an incredibly close family dynamic. In the most challenging of circumstances, the Bairstow family looked ahead.”

Jonny Bairstow has had twenty years to think about his father’s death. He says,

“No one knows why he did it and no one ever will. There’s no point questioning it every single day because if you do that it will bring you down.”

When Jonny Bairstow scored his first test century for England in Cape Town he looked up to the sky, a clear blue sky. He was thinking of his father.

In recent years, international cricketers have been forthcoming about mental problems they had long assumed somehow diminished them. Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison, Monty Panesar, Andrew Simmonds, Wayne Phillips, and Richard Hadlee have all spoken about their mental health issues.

Former English opener Graeme Fowler writes about suicide in his autobiography, Absolutely Foxed. He says,

“No (I didn’t consider it), because I know I have a nice life. I have a great job, a great family, lovely wife. I know all that exists, but I can’t get to it. It’s over there, and I can’t get there. So am I going to kill myself? The answer is no. But do I wish I was dead? Yes.”

The Australian Cricketers’ Association conducted a survey amongst past players who had retired or been forced out of professional cricket at international or state level since 2005.

They found

• 39% of those surveyed had experienced high levels of stress and anxiety for two weeks or more;
• 25% had experienced depression or helplessness for two weeks or more;
• 43% felt they had lost a sense of their destiny.

The association chief executive Paul Marsh said the linking of a player’s identity to their sporting achievements, and a lack of balance in their lives were among the problems the association was working to alleviate. He said,

“I don’t think there is any definitive research on this but I think cricket is a game that lends itself to the types of mental health issues that we’ve seen.”

“One reason is the international guys spend so much time away from home, and that can be difficult. And there are few sports… that your own personal performances are so identifiable and thus under scrutiny.”

Former Australian test player Ed Cowan says,

“A professional sportsperson is his or her performance. From experience, I can say it can feel like you have ceased to exist when failure is the story of your day.”

He concludes,

“Cricket will continue to have players who struggle with mental illness. We can only hope that an increase in awareness and mental health literacy will be at the forefront of their rehabilitation.”

Beyond every dark cloud is a clear blue sky.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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