“To play county cricket,” Sir Gareth Sobers once said, “you have to love eating salad three times a day.” Is it salad that drives so many cricketers to end their own lives or is it the game itself, as cricket historian David Frith suggests, “that transforms unwary cricket-loving boys into brooding, insecure and ultimately self-destructive men”? Richard Grainger investigates.
On the morning of 15th November 2011, BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew tweeted: “My God. Just heard about Peter Roebuck. Loved working with him. Incisive. Erudite. Funny. Don’t know the full story.”
No one ever will know precisely what triggered Roebuck to jump from the sixth floor of the Southern Sun Hotel in Cape Town. No more than anyone will ever know why Stoddart, Shrewsbury, Gimblett, Robertson-Glasgow, Bairstow, Trott, Iverson, Barnes – all high profile cricketers – ended their own lives over the last century.
When Gary Speed, the Wales football manager, hung himself in his garage six days earlier, suicide and sport appeared in the same sentence once again.
And in the same week the William Hill Sports Book award went to Ronald Reng for A Life too Short – an exploration of what drove his close friend, German goalkeeper Robert Enke to kill himself. This brings the question of why so many sportsmen take their own lives back into focus.
“Pretending to be tougher, or saner than you are is often a central part of professional sport,” says Professor Adrian Taylor, leader of research and curriculum development in psychology at Exeter University. “There is also a culture of wilful blindness about the mental fragility of your team-mates. Some words just aren’t used in elite team sports.”
But even in the context of sport, cricket is a game that appears to have a disproportionately high suicide rate. Cricket historian David Frith is an expert in the field. Frith, a journalist, historian and former editor of The Cricketer and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly has written two books on the subject.
By His Own Hand, in which he studied the phenomenon of cricketing suicides, was
published in 1991. Ten years later, Silence of the Heart, an expanded edition consisting of largely the same material, was written with the assistance of the former England cricket captain turned psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley.
Frith details 151 cricketing suicides, among them 23 Test players. Of those players, six had played Test cricket for England.
He also calculated that 2.7 per cent of cricketers of all nationalities have killed themselves, while the overall rate amongst British men is 1.07 per cent. He attributes this to a waning in the stigma surrounding suicide and a new willingness to identify it as cause of death.
But people don’t just end their lives because there’s less of a stigma about killing themselves. You don’t draw back from the balcony on the sixth floor because the sudden thought: “Gosh – this isn’t going to look good in the papers,” flashes across your troubled mind.
Moreover, Frith’s statistical analysis does not stand up to close scrutiny. The National Office of Statistics website shows that there were 264,707 male deaths in 1998 – the year Frith used for his analysis – of which 4,039 were suicides. This equates to 1.53 per cent male suicide rate, not 1.07.
And Frith arrived at 1.77 per cent of suicide rate among English Test cricketers by looking at 339 English Test cricketers – across all time – who had died by July 2000. Only six of these (1.77 per cent) had killed themelves. This data pool is much too small to establish a reliable link.
But the individual cases themselves are of interest. William Scotton killed himself in 1893 after suffering depression. Andrew Stoddard shot himself, also in 1893 – not a good year for Test cricketers – aged 52 after suffering bad health and money problems.
In 1903, Arthur Shrewsbury, aged 47 also shot himself in the mistaken belief that he was terminally ill. In 1937 Albert Relf, aged 62 killed himself following depression. More recently, in 1978, Harold Gimlett, aged 63, took an overdose of prescription drugs following years of mental health problems.
And in 1998, David Bairstow, aged 46, hung himself only weeks after surviving an overdose. He had also suffered from depression. The coroner returned an open verdict and expressed the view that Bairstow’s true intent was “a cry for help”.
But dig a little deeper and you will find other cricketers whose careers have been blighted by debilitating levels of depression. Mike Selvey, writing in The Guardian in March 2011, following Michael Yardy’s return from Australia, said that Yardy, he believed, would not be the last England player to leave a tour early for the sake of his mental health.
And then of course, there’s Marcus Trescothick, a batsman of such sublime talent that many believe his name would be first on the teamsheet were he still available for selection.
When Trescothick broke down in tears in an Indian dressing room four days before the first Test in 2006, it was the beginning of the end. He recalls in his autobiography Coming Back to Me, how counselling and encouragment from those close to him at Somerset persuaded him to return to India in 2008 with his county for a T20 tournament. He didn’t make it past the check-in. This, he recalls, owed nothing to a young James Hildreth who said jokingly to the coach driver entering Heathrow, “This is where Mr Trescothick gets off”.
Although Frith has not conclusively established “a shocking rate of self-destruction amongst cricketers,” he has highlighted the unique mental pressures of the game at the highest level.
Perhaps the apparent link between cricket and suicide is best expained by what Professor Taylor calls “The availability heuristic”. He explains: “This is where something seems common because an example comes to mind readily, rather than because it is actually common”.
However, Frith’s secondary question is more pertinent: “Does cricket, more than any other game, attract the susceptible?” Does the game “…transform unwary cricket-loving boys into brooding, insecure and ultimately self-destructive men when the best days are past?”
Frith writes: “It is the uncertainty, day in and day out,
that plays a sinister beat on the cricketer’s soul. The nature of cricket is that it tears at the nerves. Half-hearted cricketers are extremely
A few years ago, talking about the loneliness of the job to fellow cricket correspondent Kersi Meher-Homji, Peter Roebuck remarked that all cricketers, to some degree or other, die a death in far-off, forgotten hotel rooms. How incisive, erudite and even ironically funny.