FEATURE | Coronavirus reignites cricket's dark battle with mental illness
During this year’s coronavirus induced lockdown, England spinner Dominic Bess spoke out about his experiences with depression, a battle which saw him break down in tears while in conversation with Somerset’s psychologist as he waited to bat against Yorkshire.
In a tumultuous year, the 23-year-old was picked for England’s home series against Pakistan, yet a few short months later, he could not get a game for Somerset’s county side. The on-field struggles had a devastating effect on his mental well-being.
It’s not a new issue in the sport. Jonathan Trott left the 2013 Ashes tour of Australia plagued by stress, while Marcus Trescothick suffered the same fate seven years previously. Sarah Taylor was forced into retirement as a result of anxiety and retired England cricketer David Bairstow took his own life following a battle with depression.
A recent move to a more open dialogue on mental health struggles has helped to combat a long-standing stigma of the issue within society. Yet, sadly, coronavirus will do little to dampen the prevalence of such issues in cricket.
Professional cricketers joined the furloughed population of Britain’s workforce in late spring, unsure if they would do their jobs at all in 2020. The prevailing worry is the effect that the lockdown, with its financial and social implications, will have had on professional cricketers and on those looking to make it in the game. It is, as founder of athlete mental health charity Sporting Minds UK Callum Lea points out, a two part problem.
“The first issue is the short term effect for athletes. Sport is a massive part of their makeup and their character. To be told that, for 12 weeks, it is going to end up that they simply can't play, that brings about an issue.”, said Oxford Brookes University student Lea, who experienced mental health difficulties himself whilst playing for Worcestershire Academy. The charity he started earlier this year provides support to young athletes who are also experiencing mental health battles.
“I have heard a lot of athletes describe it as a lack of value in sense, because they place a lot of their identity on the sport over the course of their lives, then being told they can't do it for however many months is a problem. There will be loads who feel pent up and need to release that energy. It will be a direct cause of issues for some athletes.”
This idea is developed by The Conversation’s Jo Batey and Keith Parry, who explain how the commitment to being a sportsperson often begins at a young age: “Athletes begin to sacrifice other types of identities available to them in their pursuit of sporting success. So, over time, they become what’s known as “role engulfed” as other identities, that might have helped to create a more multidimensional self, are sacrificed.”
Indeed, other athletes have previously spoken about being role engulfed. Jonny Wilkinson once told The Telegraph:
“When you’re not doing what you are known for, not achieving the goals you set for yourself, what value do you have? My whole identity used to be through rugby, so as soon as you cut the rugby, you have no identity left. I didn’t know what I was, who I was. If affirmation comes from points you kick, what are you when you can’t kick? Who are you?
How easy is it to tell a cricketer, who has spent their life working to achieve the goal of becoming a professional, that they need to diversify their identity because of a virus?
And that’s only the first problem.
“There is also the deeper issue that it has brought to professional sport and to the academy sport. There is a lot of career development on hold at the moment”, Lea says, “opportunities are just not there.”
With the County Championship season truncated to the Bob Willis Trophy and a short T20 blast window operating this month, the younger players who would ordinarily gain exposure to first team cricket through available Championship games or the Royal London One Day Cup will miss out, and may find chances to prove their worth limited, a naturally unsettling prospect.
Lea continues: “Then things like furlough schemes have also come in, and there is the financial implication and a general level of uncertainty. That's what breeds mental health issues. You can see the virus destroying careers.”
21-year-old Yorkshire Academy graduate Ben Birkhead is one of the many players set to be out of contract in September, 2020, and he admits to anxiety about what lies ahead should the County decide not to renew the rookie's contract.
The wicket-keeper said: “I've got to, not expect the worst, but have realistic expectations and have a rough idea of how I might react if it is bad news”.
“Ideally I would be playing and putting in performances to guarantee a contract, but you just don't know. It's not in my hands. I suppose, from Yorkshire's point of view they would ideally like to keep everyone and give them a chance, but with the money they could lose it will be tough”.
The Huddersfield born talent had spent the winter playing club cricket in Australia but couldn’t play in the competition’s finals after being recalled by Yorkshire to attend the Club’s tour of Mumbai, a trip which only lasted 32 hours before the virus forced the squad to return. Despite being on furlough and unsure of his next steps, Birkhead revealed the Club had been communicating to make sure the players’ mental well-being was as good as it could be. However, Lea fears the Clubs have not been proactive enough.
“We have reached out to 13 of the 18 counties to offer our free support system. In a month only one county has come back , which isn't really too encouraging. It might be coronavirus, and the fact there are fewer people working, but yes that engagement is disappointing.”
That is not to say support has not been sought elsewhere, though. Birkhead was effusive in his praise for the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA), who have been an invaluable sounding board for him. Yet, Lea fears the stigma still exists around mental health, thereby preventing athletes from gaining help.
“Unfortunately, it's just the way it is that there are a lot of people who do need help. If we are not receiving a lot of enquiries, it’s not because there are no athletes who need support. You can have the best support system ever, you can do all you want as a charity, but athletes need to be able to seek that support.”
The effect coronavirus will have could be long-lasting.
“I can't see the implications going away. It could cause issues for athletes for a number of years, and I think you will be able to trace back referrals [to mental health clinics] to coronavirus in some way.”
For those who may have been taking their first wobbly steps in the sport, the pandemic could, for various reasons, decimate the career that for years they have been hoping to forge. Uncertainty is the only guarantee for those released from the game, with worrying implications for the mental health of those who appear to be particularly vulnerable. Only time will tell the true scale of the impact.
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