Peter Cole on The Press: Even the toughest writers now feel the batsman's pain
Coverage of Trescothick's distress reveals how attitudes have changed
Sunday 19 November 2006
The demands of sports writing grow all the time. Once it was sufficient to describe the play. The new challenge is to write about mental health.
Some sportswriters realise that the right psychology is as important as talent for success at the highest level. It is recognised that mind games, as they are called to keep them sporting, matter in sport and will therefore form part of the story.
So many cricket writers are former players that there is first-hand experience of standing at the wicket while behind you a row of Australian slip fielders maintains a constant soundtrack of questions and comments on your ability, courage and parenthood. But now we have moved off-field to factors that prevent playing the game at all, the reporters run the risk of seeming embarrassed, ignorant or out of date.
Overwhelmingly, the press and broadcast treatment of Marcus Trescothick and his stress-related departure from the Ashes tour has been understanding and sympathetic. Not so long ago it would have been very different, and the word '"character" would have been much in use. When players were paid very little to represent their country, the current theme of "our hearts go out to Marcus..." would have been "if you can't stand the heat..." There was more emphasis on batsmen staying in than hearts going out.
Modern professional cricketers, particularly Australians, come across as seriously hard men. They don't do cuddly. Yet appearances deceive. Australian star Shane Warne wrote in The Times: "What's happened there is a personal issue for Marcus to deal with himself." Former England fast bowler Angus Fraser wrote in The Independent: "Sympathy extends towards Trescothick; he is a likeable man and anyone who knows him will wish for a speedy recovery."
Each day of the Trescothick crisis, BBC Five Live has fallen over itself in its anxiety to be the most sympathetic, the most understanding, the most progressive in its attitude to mental health. It was left to the phone-ins, particular Victoria Derby- shire's, for the old attitudes to come through. Plenty of mentions of the money and the life style of the modern sportsmen. Plenty of comparisons with the stress experienced by a soldier in Iraq, or a hospital nurse in Britain. Sarcasm was more evident than sympathy among callers. By and large, the voice of the journalist was more PC than the voice of the public.
Those addicted to Test Match Special down the years may have wondered what former commentators Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman might have said about Marcus's woes. They would have reminded us that an Ashes tour used to consist of long sea voyages each side of at least two months of cricket, that wives and children were deemed not to exist, that phone calls home were crackly and expensive, and that no batsman wore a helmet.
I sense one or two of the current TMS team might still be sympathetic to some of those views. And I bet many who have listened to the wise and uncompromising views of one of the greatest batsmen ever to wear an England cap, Geoffrey Boycott, might think he would be one of them.
Yet his Daily Telegraph column about Trescothick offered the most articulate account of the stresses on modern cricketers and the greed of those who force them to play too much cricket. "More players will crack up in the future," he said. "Trescothick has clearly had enough and needs to get away from all the pressure. I really feel for the lad. I know what he is going through at the moment because for three years I opted out of playing for England. When you are suffering from stress you just want to run away. It is a silent illness."
Boycott would probably find the suggestion that he was PC about anything rather offensive. He would probably prefer it if we said that, on the subject of Marcus, he was right.
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