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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 12:54 GMT
Bitter-sweet sympathy
By Tom Fordyce

Scenario one: Michael Vaughan is ruled out of the Ashes with a chronic long-term knee problem. Public reaction: widespread sympathy.

Marcus Trescothick
Trescothick's problem first appeared during the tour to India

Scenario two: Marcus Trescothick is sent home from the Ashes tour with a chronic long-term stress-related illness. Public reaction: decidedly mixed.

Why do we show less empathy towards sportsmen suffering from mental problems?

Have your fingers broken by a Brett Lee bouncer, and you're a wounded warrior.

Find yourself unable to cope with the relentless pressures of top-level competition, and, for some, you're a lightweight, a weakling, a bottler.

Comments I've overheard today about Trescothick include:

  • "How can he be stressed when he hasn't done anything for six months?"
  • "He's still on a central contract, so he's getting paid for nothing - how's that stressful?"
  • "Why did he lie and tell us he felt better?"

    And from the 606 website:

  • "He should never have toured in the first place" - blakes21
  • "This guy is taking the mick now" - Steve Butler
  • "What a load of tosh" - jolomo

    We really should know better. Significant mental distress will affect one in four of us in our lifetime. One in six of the population is suffering at any time.

    But we seem to expect more of our sporting heroes than we do of ourselves.

    You have to become an ice-man

    Mike Gatting

    Partly it's a lifestyle thing.

    Offer the ordinary man in the street a salary of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, the opportunity to see the sunnier parts of the world for free and the option of retiring at 35 years old, and he would bite your hand off.

    Stress to most of us means being short of cash, being over-worked in brain-numbing jobs, worrying about an uncertain future.

    It doesn't mean spending the winter in Australia, being part of one of the most anticipated sporting occasions of the year and being handsomely rewarded for it.

    Then there's the physical side.

    We can see broken fingers. We can see the pain on Vaughan's face when his knee gives out again.

    But, save for a sort of long face you'd expect when someone's dismissed for a low score, we seldom see any physical manifestation of psychological problems.

    Marcus Trescothick
    Trescothick left the field in tears on Monday

    History indicates we should show more understanding. Trescothick is just the latest in a long line of cricketers crippled by mental demons.

    As David Frith showed in his book "Silence of the Heart", the incidence of suicide among Test cricketers is far higher than in the general population.

    Frith reckons that at least 160 professional cricketers have taken their own lives, including former England players David Bairstow and Harold Gimblett and Australian stars Sid Barnes and Jack Iverson.

    Neither are mental problems a strictly modern-day phenomenon.

    Albert Trott took 8-43 on his Ashes debut in Adelaide in 1894, but later fell prey to mental illness and took his own life.

    Frith says: "Cricket is by far the major sport for suicides - because it is so monopolistic, because it enfolds you and plays on the mind, filling you with confusion and self-doubt.

    "Then there are players, like Colin Milburn, who literally drink themselves to death - suicide mark two, if you like. Valium users could be called mark three."

    We like to imagine our sporting heroes as supermen, capable of physical deeds impossible to us mortals watching on.

    But those epic deeds come at a cost - mental burnout, self-doubt, a fear of being unable to fulfil the public's expectations.

    On long overseas tours, even simple domestic issues can snowball into serious problems.

    As former Ashes-winning captain Mike Gatting told BBC Sport, "Your wife has to leave pictures of you around the house and talk to the kids about you, otherwise they forget who you are.

    "You almost have to switch off the emotions and become an ice-man.

    "You also get used to a certain way of life on tour. When you get home that suddenly changes.

    "You've been used to doing what you want to do, and then suddenly there are other people in your life again who you have been trying not to think about for four months."

    Sport to most of us might be a happy pastime, an escape, a source of great entertainment.

    That doesn't mean it can't feel like the exact opposite for some of those at the sharp end.





    Trescothick to miss Ashes series
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