The perfect game for obsessives and depressives

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SOME years ago, towards the end of the 1980s, I was having dinner with a group of writers when a heated discussion broke out on the subject of nuclear weapons. A well-known playwright challenged the woman sitting next to me to tell us what she had done to rid the world of the nuclear menace. When she said nervously that she had once been on a demonstration, his reaction was scathing.

While the rest of us wondered what to do to quell the storm, a male voice piped up from the other end of the table: "Does anyone happen to know the Test score?" The effect was dramatic - rather like that early Renaissance painting in the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, in which a medieval saint swoops down to calm a tempest at sea. Someone recited the score, the men fell into an animated discussion about how England were doing, and moments later the playwright was reciting a poem about W G Grace.

I mention this because it taught me a lesson about the role of cricket in the lives of English men. The dinner took place before Fever Pitch provided an insight into the relation between football, insecurity and male identity but, even so, I do not think soccer functions at quite the same level of obsession. In fact, cricket appears to inspire obsession and depression, as we discovered when the former England wicketkeeper, 46-year-old David Bairstow, killed himself last week. Bairstow's death drew attention to a baleful statistic, which is the unusually high rate of suicide associated with the game: 60 among first-class players since records began, 20 of them among Test cricketers.

Bairstow was still recovering from a car crash and his wife has breast cancer, events which may have had a bearing on his decision to kill himself. But experts have confirmed the anecdotal evidence of a link between cricket and serious bouts of depression. "Cricket, like no other game, is played in the mind," said David Foot, biographer of Harold Gimblett, another Test cricketer who committed suicide. "You spend so much time moping around and getting depressed about a whole variety of things. That's why cricket has such a phenomenal number of suicides."

Other commentators, including David Firth who in 1991 wrote a book about cricket suicides, single out the all-consuming nature of the game - and the shock many players feel when, in their late 30s or early 40s, they find themselves no longer able to play at Test or county level. "It sweeps you up and sweeps you along and takes you over", says Firth. "When it's gone there is a huge hole."

These are dangerous admissions in the present hysterical climate in Britain when only the tiniest degree of risk has to be identified for the government to rush through a ban. Cricket could go the way of beef on the bone and vitamin B6. At the very least schoolboys who show an interest in the game may soon find themselves offered counselling along with copies of Wisden. And GPs may already be on the lookout for an interest in batting averages as an indicator of future health problems in their male patients.

BUT why should cricket, more than any other competitive sport, have this effect? As someone whose ex-lovers have been cricket fans almost to a man, I've had plenty of time to think about the hold it has over quite diverse people. In the days when my then husband turned out regularly for the New Statesman team, I spent many Sunday afternoons on recreation grounds on the outskirts of London in the company of journalists and novelists - I recall Will Self, Duncan Campbell and Julian Barnes - and a variety of players whose tenuous connection with the magazine was overlooked on account of their ability to wield a bat.

I was even, on one ghastly occasion, co-opted into playing when the Statesman team was one short. So alarmed was I to find myself on the pitch that I caught and bowled an opposing batsman - I think it was Chris Mullin, then editor of Tribune, now a Labour MP - with one of my first balls, and was let off the rest of the game. Caught and bowled means, of course, bowled and caught. It doesn't make sense the other way round. But cricket has its own language, one which isn't accessible to people who don't follow it. This is not just because of the Edwardian ring of phrases like "googly" and "silly mid-on", which sound like something out of a P G Wodehouse novel. Cricket's arcane vocabulary creates a world of initiates and outsiders, with enthusiasts able to recognise each other on the basis of one or two exploratory sentences.

In that sense it resembles a cult, or a primitive tribe, whose lengthy oral history brings members together and bores everyone else rigid. Which other sport is so obsessed with statistics and records and controversies dating back to the 1930s? (Bodyline? Pantyline? As you can see, like most women, I'm not an initiate.) It also, as a relic from a period when men weren't supposed to show emotion, provides a subject on which they can express passionate opinions. After all, it's only a game.

But is it? Matches which last nearly a week, foreign tours which go on for months - it's easy to imagine how lost some first-class players feel when their careers are over. Professional footballers, on the other hand, seem to be able to live with the change of pace, and loss of status which frequently follow retirement from the game. I'm not sure whether cricket attracts or creates depressives but the suicide statistics suggest that, for some men at least, it's a temporary way of filling a painful void. Not so much a game, more a way of life.

WHEN the Foreign Secretary got a phone call from the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alistair Campbell, warning him that a tabloid newspaper was about to reveal his affair with his secretary, he was on his way to Heathrow Airport with his wife Margaret. According to her devastating account this weekend, Mr Cook arrived at Terminal 4 and asked for the use of a VIP lounge where he announced that (a) they would not be going on holiday in Montana, as planned, and (b) their marriage was over. I've often wondered what happens in VIP lounges, and now we know they're to be avoided by wives of Cabinet ministers. It's this detail, on top of his infidelity, which makes Mr Cook's conduct appear so shabby.