Suresh Menon

Fowler’s autobiography helps one understand the demons in a cricketer’s head

Sometime in the 1970s, Harold Gimblett, then in his 60s, told the journalist David Foot, “The mental battles for me have been enormous and maybe it would be a good idea to put them on record.” Gimblett spoke into a tape recorder, and the resultant book, The Tormented Genius of Cricket , broke new ground. Such books are rarely written, said John Arlott, “Perhaps mental problems are not regarded as sufficiently complex to interest a literate public.” Gimblett committed suicide before the book was published.

Depression was little understood then; sportsmen did not speak of it in public. Gimblett who made his first class debut for Somerset with a century in 63 minutes and later played for England, underwent electro convulsive therapy, in the same way that Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath did. Both the novelist and the poet later took their own lives.

In his recent autobiography ( Absolutely Foxed), the former England opener Graeme Fowler — who once made a double century at Chepauk —writes about suicide: “No (I didn’t consider it), because I know I have a nice life. I have a great job, 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.”

Forthcoming

In recent years, international cricketers have been forthcoming about mental problems that they had long assumed somehow diminished them.

“In that old macho way,” wrote Marcus Trescothick in his autobiography, “I didn’t want to admit to anyone what the problem might be.”

Others like the New Zealander Iain O’Brien and the English international Mike Yardy went public with their problem, O’Brien saying, “I don’t want to become one of those statistics (of cricketers committing suicide).”

When Jonathan Trott returned early from an Ashes series, there was sympathy rather than judgement. Andrew Flintoff has spoken about his “crippling psychological injury”, and more recently Monty Panesar revealed he had “paranoia issues.”

Fowler’s book, like Trescothick’s, is written with an honesty and ease that sends out the message to fellow-sufferers: “You are not alone.”

“Cricket is a game based on failure,” writes Fowler. “Don Bradman scored a hundred every three innings; therefore two-thirds of his career was a failure.”

Ranking the struggle

Fowler writes about the scale — 1 to 20 — he used when he was in the grip of despair and unable to communicate. Ten was neutral and meant he was OK. Anything below that he was struggling and above that he felt good.

He had the advantage of an understanding wife and family, who referred to him affectionately as the “house lunatic” to reduce the seriousness of what he was suffering from. The other advantage, if it could be called that, is that he had already retired from the game. As teacher, coach and mentor he played an important role in the development of English cricket, among his wards being Andrew Strauss the future England captain.

Still, while depression and his approach to it, the manner of his helping out others is an important theme of the book, it is not the only one.

There is great joy too. There are parties — at one of which he bit Elton John’s wife — and escapades with Ian Botham.

There are excellent commentaries on the manner in which English cricket is handled, on how selectors do their job and the disappointment that comes from having to deal with officials full of themselves and with little understanding or interest in the game itself.

Yet, reading Fowler and the list of recent players who have opened the door to their problems, it is difficult to believe it is a uniquely English problem.

A couple of years ago, the Professional Cricketers Association after surveying 500 cricketers found that five per cent of them had sought help for mental health problems. This figure is roughly the same, according to the World Health Organisation, for those suffering from depression across the world.

Asian players cannot be immune, yet we never hear of a case here. If anything, sometimes the pressures are greater, the coping mechanisms less developed and the overall understanding of the problem incomplete in this region. The stress to appear untouched can only worsen the situation.

Fowler, whose problem was detected after his wife reminded him he hadn’t spoken for days, has trained himself to look out for symptoms in a dressing room.

Perhaps there is something about the game too. If so, it hasn’t been explored enough. As the late Peter Roebuck wrote: “It’s strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men. It is surely the very worst game for an intense character, yet it continues to find many obtuse sensitivities among its players. Men of imagination, men of ideals risk its hard exposures.”

“The uncertainty of cricket is not always glorious or exciting,” wrote Mike Brearley in the foreword to a book on cricket suicides. “It can be disillusioning and anxiety-creating.” Graeme Fowler shows how this is so in one of the most illuminating books on the game.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:27:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/suresh-menon/Fowler%E2%80%99s-autobiography-helps-one-understand-the-demons-in-a-cricketer%E2%80%99s-head/article14572805.ece

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