Cricket and mental health issues have a long history together. Sadly. According to a study, and quoting from a 2001 article in The Guardian, “English cricketers are almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male and have a suicide rate higher than players of any other sport … .”
In England, 1.07% of men commit suicide — a horrifying statistic — while 1.77% of cricketers take their own lives, making them 75% more likely to commit suicide.
It’s not news, neither to us — the fans — nor to the players. We have long known of this sad and dark part of cricket. There’s a notion that some people cling to, that the game attracts the vulnerable, the sad, and that’s why certain people with a predilection toward depression are drawn to it. It’s a chicken and egg situation. But I don’t ascribe to this theory, even though part of me wants to, wants to know that I came to this game because it reached out to a very sad, very specific, very hidden part of me. It’s not that though. And believing that does a disservice to all those who are suffering. It romanticizes depression, which counter-intuitively does more to add to the stigma of mental illness, as it casts the depressed as sad dreamers who just need to shake it off.
As mentioned in the Guardian article, it probably has more to do with with the game itself. The long spells away from home. The lack of a chance for redemption at the crease. The constant uncertainty. It can wear on a person. And if that person is already susceptible to anxiety or depression or both, then cricket and its peculiarities can push those tendencies to the forefront. Just like a death in the family can, or a car accident. Or a divorce.
But still, I think cricketers are different in this regard, at least from those in other sports. The lack of bravado, of testosterone fueled rages, that you get in other sports, makes cricketers feel more human, more like us, and therefore easier to feel empathy for. When Jonathon Trott dropped himself from the England Test team due to anxiety, he was not lambasted for being weak, he didn’t have to make up some excuse, he just told people what was going on. And people looked at him and saw themselves, saw their own sadness and worry in his eyes, eyes all too human, all too close to our own, and therefore were able to feel empathy. That’s not to take away from the bravery it took Trott to publicly announce his illness, but just that, well, like in so many other ways, cricket is different.
It’s something I think about a lot. Depression and this game we love. Anxiety and this game we love. And what came first, the mental illness or the game. Surely the mental illness, but still. There’s substance to the latter too. In a way. Maybe more so for the fans than the players. The game is quiet, it gives you time to think. You can drift off and be on your own in your head and not miss anything. It’s kind. Or, at least, it tries to be kind. It’s on in the middle of the night, when those of us with insomnia are up roaming the halls anyway. It’s lyrical, romantic, sad. Cruel, mean, unfair. And despite the above, there is also redemption. There is okay, there is the other side. Ben Stokes shaking off Bristol. Yuvraj Singh shaking off cancer. It’s late afternoons in the summer that look somehow like those of our youth. It’s worlds light years away where nothing that hurts is near us. There’s blue sky and sun. And false dawns. And memories of better times. It’s tradition and history and time. It’s the players looking like us. It’s the players opening up to the world about their own struggles. Of admitting they are human, and they want to help. It’s the soft applause as a bowler returns to his fielding position after a good spell. It’s the home fans applauding the accomplishments of the away team. The game reaches out to the vulnerable and says: “this is an okay place for you.”
And so maybe it’s chicken for the players, and egg for the fans. Or maybe not. Probably not. I am probably just another depressed person who happens to like cricket. But when it’s as dark as it has been, you look for those patterns in the wallpaper, some reason for it all. Not for how you’re feeling, but some sort of proof that there’s nothing you did wrong, that it’s always been in you, and something tipped it over and everything spilled out and a flat dark rug was rolled onto your life.
This I know: when times are hard, I come here. When I am running away from everything I used to love, I am running here. To not just this blog, but this game. In that case maybe it’s not the chicken or the egg, but rather the salve. The distraction we need when the world feels so dark and you don’t know if there will ever be light again. Maybe that’s cricket’s real reason for existing for so long, for always fighting its way off the canvas, for battling against time itself and somehow winning: because we need it. We sad, infinite few, who take comfort in the idea and the promise that we are not alone.