Brian Viner: Depression is no respecter of wealth, athleticism, fame and fabulous talent

The demands of touring and the separation from loved ones are problems
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The Independent Online

The responses to Marcus Trescothick's "stress-related" withdrawal from the Ashes tour have been predictably varied: from extreme sympathy to hostile incomprehension. One of the more surprising reactions came from Geoffrey Boycott, not a man known for tolerating perceived weaknesses in others, yet in his newspaper column on Wednesday he dispensed positively avuncular understanding, blaming it all on a surfeit of international crickit, which for some reason he spells "cricket".

There aren't many positives to draw from Trescothick's ordeal, but one of them is that it has directed some attention towards the little-understood phenomenon of depression in highly-paid sportsmen. We can all understand why a single parent with multiple sclerosis living in a condemned tower block might be depressed, but not everyone can get their head round the notion that a famous man in perfect health and wonderful physical condition, with a fabulous talent matched by a fabulous income, might be similarly stricken.

John Gregory couldn't, at any rate. When Stan Collymore was diagnosed with clinical depression while at Aston Villa, Gregory, his manager, was loudly and publicly cynical. And in fairness, he was merely echoing the sentiments of many fans. Collymore was getting paid handsomely to play for the Villa, the team he, like they, had supported since boyhood. What was there to be depressed about? And heaven help the footballer being treated for mild schizophrenia, as the Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram reportedly was a few years ago, causing the Dundee crowd to cry, admittedly with a fair degree of wit: "Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorams ..."

Anyway, Collymore wrote a decent book, Tackling My Demons, which attempted to address what he had to be depressed about. He also talks articulately on the subject in interviews (while also talking bollocks on certain other subjects, I should add). He was recently asked what he considered to be the biggest misapprehension about depression. "That it's not an illness," he replied. "There's still this whole rubbish about: 'Oh I've had a couple of bad days; I'm depressed'. That's missing the point completely. That's like saying that a spot on your face means you've got a blood clot. It's a bloody serious illness - the only one, as far as I'm aware, that makes human beings want to take their own life."

This brings us back to cricket, which has the highest suicide rate of any major sport, a subject that inspired David Frith's morbid but fascinating book, Silence of the Heart. Incredibly, more than 100 cricketers have ended their own lives, including some notably famous ones, such as A E Stoddart, a dashing England captain in the late 19th century, the Australian Test players Sid Barnes and Jack Iverson, and, in 1997, the former Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper David Bairstow.

I realise that I throw myself open to a charge of insensitivity even to mention Frith's book in a column considering Trescothick's predicament; but he is not about to do himself harm, and I sincerely hope that he gets well quickly, and makes a successful return to Test cricket. I've met him, briefly, and he's a charming guy. I'm sure he will derive strength from the thought that cricket fans everywhere, even Aussie ones, are rooting for him.

But with the Ashes almost upon us Frith's thesis is worth considering, for he believes not that emotionally susceptible people are attracted to cricket, but that cricket exerts a mental strain like no other sport.

"The nature of cricket is such that it tears at the nerves," he says. "Half-hearted cricketers are extremely rare. This game gets a grip on people such as only religious fanatics might recognise. It is the uncertainty, day in and day out, that plays a sinister beat on the cricketer's soul. Golfers, footballers, tennis players and boxers all have an assurance that they have a chance to recover from early defeat in the game but cricket embodies uncertainty on the grand scale and on a relentless daily basis."

I wonder whether Trescothick would recognise the validity of Frith's words? Maybe not, because his problems, like those of Phil Tufnell and Graham Thorpe in recent years, are said principally to concern the demands of touring and the separation from loved ones.

But whatever the reasons, we have a duty as a grown-up society to respond to the emotional troubles of otherwise gilded sportsmen with nothing other than compassion. That said, not everyone managed to find much compassion for Collymore, and I confess that I was one of them; something to do with him thumping Ulrika Jonsson, perhaps. Two other troubled men, Paul Gascoigne and Mike Tyson, haven't done themselves many favours, either, in the public's estimation of them.

But John Kirwan never did anyone any harm (apart from the rugby players foolish enough to try to stop him when he was rampaging along the right wing for the All Blacks between 1984 and 1994). He suffered from depression for years - indeed, to be showing signs of emotional fragility in New Zealand is to be suffering "a case of the Kirwans". It is men like him and Trescothick - two of the more decent individuals to have graced the world's sporting arenas in recent times - who underline the need for a wider, deeper understanding of a problem that, alas, is not going to go away.

Who I Like This Week...

Simon Sherwood, who not only rode the late Desert Orchid to his most famous victory, in the 1989 Gold Cup at Cheltenham, but also to two other victories that confounded experts, the 1988 Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown and the 1989 Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot, when Dessie carried a punishing top weight. I know Simon slightly; he is a neighbour of ours in deepest Herefordshire. And although I have sat at a dinner table with him, with people quizzing him about the Desert Orchid years, he has never intimated even slightly that he might deserve the smallest slice of credit for those rides. As far as he's concerned, it was all down to the horse. But some of it, surely, was down to the horsemanship.

And Who I Don't

The despicable gang who eight years ago in London set upon a man called Kevin Alderton when he tried to stop them attacking a woman. They gouged his eyes, and after nine operations he was left with only four per cent vision. Yet he has exacted revenge of a kind by setting two blind speed skiing records: last April he set a new outdoor speed skiing record for blind people, and last week he set a new indoor record, on an indoor slope in the Netherlands, of 56.36mph. He skis with a guide who sends him commands over a radio link, and is aiming for gold at the 2010 Paralympics. "I have oneupmanship now over the people who blinded me," he said.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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