No clear path through the fog of depression

Mark Saxelby was a journeyman cricketer for Nottinghamshire and Durham. He was a tall left-handed batsman who bowled right-arm medium pace. He was talented if short on self-belief. One October afternoon eleven years ago, in a car park in Newark, he drank a fatal amount of weed-killer, the kind of stuff that rots you from the inside, and he died a lingering, painful death in Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham, fourteen hours later.

Saxelby’s story was just one shard of an excellent documentary on BBC radio on Tuesday evening about depression in sport. It was fronted by the former England captain, Michael Vaughan, and Eleanor Oldroyd, with contributions from Matthew Hoggard and Marcus Trescothick, two players who have suffered from depression to differing degrees, Saxelby’s brother, Kevin, and others who have been similarly affected.

The topic is not new by any means. David Frith, the cricket historian, exhausted the subject of cricketing suicides in his outstanding book, Silence of the Heart, but depression has been given new relevance by the recent high-profile examples of Trescothick and Yardy, the former whose international career was ended by depression, the latter who came home from the World Cup because of it and who has not played for England since.

Two questions have always intrigued me: the first is a matter of degree- how easily can the normal pressures of professional sport, the fear of failure, the reaction to failure, the anxiety that every sportsman feels, be differentiated from the clinical illness that is severe depression?; second, how far is the nature of cricket itself responsible for harming those who play it?

Hoggard’s story took an interesting twist when he said that the best advice he received was from his wife, Sarah, who simply told him to ‘pull yourself together, Matthew.’ Here, the redoubtable Mrs. Hoggard was echoing the thoughts of Geoffrey Boycott, slammed for his ignorance in the programme by Trescothick, when he was asked to comment on Yardy’s return from the sub-continent last winter. Yet from what Hoggard was saying this is exactly what he, Hoggard, needed.

It seems that Hoggard’s depression, whilst painful and debilitating, was of the kind that most players go through at some stage during their career. His form was poor; he was on the verge of being dropped; his international days were numbered and an empty future was opening up in front of him; his wife had just given birth to their first son and was a reluctant traveller, and the marriage was in difficulties.

These factors came together at a time that Hoggard was being plastered all around Hamilton by New Zealand’s batsmen, reducing this cricketer, perceived as spirited and unbreakable, to the point of tears. The situation might have been extreme, but I would wager that most professional sportsmen have confronted such demons at some stage. Most will have had moments where it has been impossible to separate private and public responsibilities, and where these then impact in unbearable fashion upon performance. It happens all the time in every walk of life. Depression is there within us all.

Trescothick’s illness was of a different type, producing a kind of fog that enveloped him completely and dominated his life to the extent that, unable to eat or think straight, his body simply shut down. The moment in the programme that Trescothick admitted his illness ‘is still keeping an eye on me’ you knew that his problems were on a completely different level to most; he had visualised the enemy and ascribed to it certain characteristics, rather like the thirteen year old boy in David Mitchell’s novel Black Swann Green, who gives the name ‘Hangman’ to his debilitating stammer.

All professional sports affect their participants in differing ways, but it is hard not to feel that cricket is particularly cruel at times. Trescothick indicated his problems were rooted in an anxiety about being away from home and the support network that had sustained him; Yardy’s breakdown in India seemed to have a similar cause. International cricket is clearly out of the question for those who suffer in such a way.

But the nature of the game itself is cruel: the time spent waiting, pondering and then failing; the brutal way that all the preparation can be cut short, especially for batsmen who, with the prospect of being given out, Mike Brearley has written, must face a kind of death on a daily basis. There are short, enjoyable summer months followed by, for county cricketers, long, lonely winters- it was the thought of another winter that sent Saxelby over the edge.

Clearly, cricketers are not the only sportsmen who suffer from depression and the non-cricketing perspective came from John Kirwan, the former All Black, whose book All Blacks Don’t Cry, charted his own problems. He made, perhaps, the most pertinent point of the whole programme, when he said that a sportsman’s default reaction to anything is to ‘fight’. You fight for your place, your career, your form and you fight, in a manner of speaking, your opponents every day. It is what you are programmed to do.

Kirwan fought for a while, as did Trescothick and Yardy, until they realised that this was one fight that they were not going to win. The tragedy was that, when the fighting was done, Saxelby did not know where to turn.