FIRST it was Marcus Trescothick and it shocked everyone. The amiable England opener left the tour of India in 2006 with a stress-related illness.
No one really knew what to do or say and that included the ECB who orchestrated a cover story that he was suffering from a virus. Trescothick returned to the England team the following summer but a fortnight into the Ashes series in Australia, it all proved too much and he flew home again, this time effectively for good. There was one final attempt to go on a pre-season tour for Somerset but his team-mates found him hiding in a corner of the airport.
By then, the cricketing world had changed as stress had become a discussion point and governing bodies around the world started to consider the demands placed on their players.
The ECB and the players’ association in England, the PCA, commissioned studies and started a process where the mantra was “the player comes first”.
That process proved necessary when Michael Yardy flew home from the World Cup in 2011 and Matthew Hoggard wrote about mentally crumbling in New Zealand and shouting to his captain, Michael Vaughan that he was “doing a Tres”. Then the big, seemingly indestructible Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, alluded to the pressure and how he drank to escape the stress. His big mate, destructive fast bowler Stephen Harmison, spoke candidly about his hatred of going on tour and the terrible strain of playing for England. To that list we can now add Jonathan Trott, who flew home from Australia last week after the first Test defeat.
Comparisons between Trescothick and Trott have abounded during the past week, possibly as both are top order batsmen, both very intense characters when it comes to cricket and both had to leave an Ashes tour Down Under. But there is much to differentiate the two cases, at least at first glance.
Trescothick left when he was still in superb form and considered one of the best players in the world. His record immediately prior to his first stress-related episode was excellent, averaging 49 in Pakistan and scoring 193 in the first Test, when he was captained as Michael Vaughan was injured. Just months before that, he had been lauded as England had regained the Ashes for the first time since 1986-87.
Trott’s recent form has been poor. Indeed the Australians had systematically broken his game down over the summer and were in the process of exposing some serious technical flaws. Trescothick was under pressure but not because of his game or poor form. Trott, however, was as his highest score in his last 12 innings had been 59 with an average of 26.
Also, Trescothick’s illness was previously unknown. Trott, we are told, has managed this stress-related illness for years and the England management confirmed that they were aware of it when he first played for England in 2009. Now that is extraordinary. If the player comes first, why would his employers expose him to the pressures that could lead to a breakdown? The ECB has no excuse as they had Trescothick as a marker.
Trott’s initial selection was, therefore, fraught with risk. That he played well, incredibly well, for four years is neither here nor there. He was always likely to suffer as cricket is a most mentally challenging sport and players can be forced to spend 250 days a year away from home. If he and the medics were managing his condition, then maybe the issue is that they managed it poorly at the end.
This is not to apportion blame, as the process of learning how to best protect the players but still give them the opportunity to play international cricket is ongoing.
That goes for the medical staff. The idea that the experts are omnipotent is surely redundant. They are making intelligent assumptions and guesses based on information from the player but it is far from an exact science.
Cricket seems to suffer more from this malaise than other sports. Why is not known but two excellent books by David Frith, By his own Hand and Silence of the Heart detail the alarming rate of suicide among cricketers. It is accepted that the rate among cricketers is far above both the national average and that in other sports, but why? Is it that the nature of the game attracts melancholy characters, or that failure is usually only one ball away? There is no clear answer but, obviously, there is a problem and Trott is simply the latest to suffer.
The hope must be that he recovers, but an aura of genteel politeness around the topic will not suffice. Hard questions must be asked of the ECB, their medical advice, touring itineraries, monetary pressures and, indeed, every aspect of a cricketer’s professional life.
For England, Trott’s absence means their previous rock at No.3 in the order will have to be replaced. The obvious answer is to put Ian Bell there but that means numbers five, six and seven could be Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root and the out-of-form Matt Prior.
The Australians will feel that middle order is a weakness to be exploited and are already looking much the better side at the moment. They have a good bowling unit in Mitchell Johnson, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and spinner Nathan Lyon and coach Darren Lehmann has returned them to an old-fashioned style of Australian cricket – straight bat for pitched-up balls, cross-bat shots for short deliveries and aggression throughout with bat and ball. They have rediscovered the winning feeling, the question is: Can they make it a habit?