The only surprise with Jonathan Trott’s decision to withdraw from England’s Ashes tour of Australia with a stress-related illness is that instances like this do not occur more often. The scrutiny top sportsmen and women are now exposed to and the expectation that is placed on their sometimes fragile bodies is immense. It should, therefore, come as no surprise when an individual is forced to remove themselves from the limelight because they are unable to cope.
Some people will feel that dealing with such issues is part of the job and that the person concerned needs to toughen up. There is often little sympathy because the athlete is perceived to be a lucky so-and-so who is being well paid to do an enviable job that comes with a wonderful lifestyle.
The facts, of course, are mostly true but there is much more to it than this simple and slightly ignorant summary. Coping with the pressures of playing top-flight sport should never be taken for granted. It is why most of the athletes who reach the top are fine mental – as well as physical – specimens. Dealing with a situation where people are constantly questioning your ability and nature is hard. Inaccurate judgements are constantly made, even by the supposedly well-informed. And being well-paid does not make the public humiliation any easier.
There are many support structures that are present in the current England set-up that I wish were around when I played. The attention to detail is remarkable and the aim is to allow each player to be the best cricketer he can be. Workloads are constantly monitored so that a player’s best days are spent representing England rather than a county. Alastair Cook’s squad also get extremely well remunerated. They probably earn more in a year than I did in a career.
Despite these benefits I am not at all envious of current players. In the Nineties the England teams I played in were under pressure to perform and we were often humiliated when we did not. During one indifferent day of cricket Sir Ian Botham suggested while commentating that the England bowling attack had shown the killer instinct of the Teletubbies. I can laugh at it now but seeing my head superimposed on Laa-Laa the next day in a national paper did not make me feel too good about myself. The ridicule could have had a bigger impact on other players with unknown issues.
Even so the scrutiny we suffered is nowhere near as high as the current team. When we lost there were disappointment and repercussions but the game and the world allowed you downtime. As a squad we were occasionally encouraged to get away from cricket and to have some fun. This was one of the joys or perks of touring. Not everything you did in Australia or the Caribbean had to be justified. Nor was it analysed. There may not have been many series wins but I look back on my touring days with a great deal of fondness.
The stakes are now far higher and, sadly, the extra demands increase the pressures on those in the system. It is also hard to get away. At any hour of the day there will be someone watching and commenting on what you have or have not done. In the desire to grab attention much of it will be hyperbole. Nowadays, armed with a mobile phone and a Twitter account, everyone is a journalist with an opinion. Many of the views expressed will be hurtful and published by ill-informed people possessing little idea of how the game really works. Their comments will upset someone, especially family members.
In light of what has taken place David Warner will probably be vilified for the comments he made about Trott during the first Test. Warner probably should not have said Trott’s dismissal was weak and that he looked scared but top-level sport is not a place for the vulnerable. Sportsmen are trained to prey on the weaknesses of opponents and home crowds are often encouraged to make life extremely unpleasant for the visitors. We demand our sportsmen to be tough and ruthless, but polite and considerate at the same time. Sadly, it rarely works out like this.
Everyone is as bad as each other. Indeed, I do not remember many England supporters showing a great deal of sympathy to Mitchell Johnson when he was going through a difficult period a few years ago. Highlighting his shortcomings in song and humiliating him was viewed as great fun. It was irrelevant that it nearly ended Johnson’s career and resulted in him spending lots of time seeing a psychologist.
And, to judge by the fine handed out to Michael Clarke, the Australian captain, for sledging James Anderson it is not only off the field that a player now has to be careful with what he says. Obviously, there is a line that should not be crossed – racial, homophobic or personal abuse – but suggesting that a fast bowler may try to break a batsman’s arm with a bouncer is well behind it. During a Test series against the West Indies, Desmond Haynes, the former Middlesex opener, once grabbed my right arm and said it looked very breakable. On an Ashes tour a former England coach also once asked one of his fast bowlers to try to break Shane Warne’s fingers with a bouncer when he was batting. Warne was destroying England at the time.
Intimidation plays a major part in most sports, and it always will. Why do the All Blacks continue to do the Haka? Don’t tell me that football centre-backs will not continue to threaten to injure a flashy striker, or that front rows in rugby will stop reminding the opposition that they could leave the match in pain. In the same way, facing fast bowling is as much about bravery as skill.
Everyone with a true love for sport will wish Jonathan Trott well but don’t expect him to be the last casualty. The hostile, unforgiving, win-at-all-costs environment that now seems to prevail around sport will ensure this is not the case.
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