Top cricketers to be given counselling on drink and drugs addiction

The spectre of excess and addiction – whether to drink, sex, drugs or gambling – has long hung over English sport, with footballers and, more recently, cauliflower-eared rugby internationals inspiring headlines they would rather were not true.

Cricket has been a game more immune than most to such lurid coverage. Even allowing for the aquatic antics of Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, who was stripped of the England vice-captaincy for his drunken behaviour on a Caribbean pedalo during the last World Cup, the tender thwack of willow on leather is synonymous with a more genteel sensibility.

It used to be, anyway. England's cricket players, Flintoff among them, are to be enrolled on a professional counselling scheme that aims to deter them from gambling and substance and alcohol abuse. The Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) wants the international stars to "recognise signs of problems in yourself and your team mates". Its Addictive Behaviour Programme will arrange clinical help for players considered vulnerable and also seek to help them "self-manage your own problem(s) and be able to focus on the challenges of playing cricket at the highest level".

The concern is that as professional cricketers become better rewarded, they become vulnerable to the temptations facing many young men with healthy disposable incomes.

The sessions are being run by the counselling service Performance Healthcare. First mooted at the end of last year, the programme has been running since March, with all 18 first-class counties involved. A total of 334 players have now benefited from the service. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) agreed this week that England international players should also enrol. The first attendees are likely to begin their sessions soon after the current Test match series against South Africa finishes.

The assistant chief executive of the PCA, Jason Ratcliffe, said: "Binge drinking is a national problem among young people and online gambling is widely accessible... Addiction is a serious subject and we hope that these workshops will mean players are less likely to succumb to addictive behaviour."

The scheduled attendance of Flintoff will be of particular interest to England fans. During the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, his "Fredalo" antics earned him front-page headlines on the tabloids: he was also fined and stripped of the vice-captaincy. He apologised and gave up alcohol for several months.

Other cricketers have brushed with the law over drugs. Ed Giddins, the Sussex and England bowler, was briefly banned for cocaine use. Keith Piper, the Warwickshire and England "A" wicket keeper, who is one of the key figures behind the PCA's programme, was banned twice for cannabis use and the second time was fatal for his playing career.

Dr Simon Timson, the ECB science and medicine manager, said: "We aim to de-clutter all aspects of players' lives... People from all sections of society face challenges with addictions so it would be naive to think it will never happen to a professional cricketer."

At one county the scheme is already achieving the desired effect. Simon Cook, a bowler at Kent, said: "Our dressing room poker games have stopped since the workshops began. A lot of the boys now have a better understanding of how, what and where trouble can start and are able to spot signs early."

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