GO IN TURMOIL TO TRY AND SERVE THE LORD
1981. 2005. 2019.
It doesn’t take a contestant on TV’s Only Connect to figure out the meaning of these dates. It just needs a cricket fan, for they represent seasons of almost indescribable joy and tension. Reflecting on the dreamlike summer of 2019, the journalist Alex Massie has observed ‘just how many people live in that deep and lovely England where cricket still matters’.
Many of us would second that.
But a viewing of the compelling documentary The Edge, asks us to think about the atmosphere in which test cricketers go about their jobs. It is an astonishing, beautiful account of the England cricket team’s rise from being just about the worst team in the world to the best in a handful of years. But it is also brutal.
Without prior knowledge, a viewer settling down to watch might assume it is the technical story of how a sports team was able to turn itself around, and therefore of marginal interest to the non-sports fan. The story slowly evolves into a meditation on mental illness and its prevalence among sports stars.
Cricket has more than its fair share of players taking their own lives. The historian David Frith has even written a book about its prevalence, entitled By His Own Hand. We may speculate about why there are so many cricketing suicides, but it is not difficult to work out why there is so much mental illness. The game is played all year round, and to make a decent living, a top player is often away from home for up to three-quarters of a year. Family life and personal friendships are disrupted; the simple pleasures of being at home, denied. It is also a sport that casts unsparingly accurate light on how good you are. Few other team sports carry key performance indicators as precise as cricket’s. It is not a game for the fainthearted, no matter how genteel it may appear to some.
In The Edge, we are brought face to face with several England players suffering from depression: some diagnosed, like Jonathan Trott; others not – perhaps Steve Finn and Kevin Pietersen. To these names may be added previous England players like Graeme Fowler, Chris Lewis, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff, who have each shared their struggles with mental health.
The England cricket team in the early 2010s learned ruthlessness on the field. Sadly, there seemed to be a lack of empathy off it. No-one intended Jonathan Trott to suffer, but the inability of staff to offer adequate pastoral support led to a curtailing of a successful test career. The account of Trott rigging a bowling machine to punish his body with balls propelled at astonishing speeds was a heartrending story of the self-judgment of a clinically depressed person. But it was beaten by the sight of him batting in the hostile environment of an Ashes match in Australia, where the camera shows him unsuccessfully blinking back tears between balls, surrounded by aggressive fielders.
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and to try and take their lives, but men are more successful at killing themselves – three times more so. For men under 45 – the cohort of first-class cricketers – suicide is the main way they die.
Since my generation’s first golden summer of cricket in 1981, indices of mental illness have increased markedly. In recent years they have spiked. There is a growing anecdotal sense that younger generations, among whom mental illness is so prevalent, are learning to share their experiences with more openness, understanding and honesty than before. Perhaps this will change the culture towards mental illness in the UK and elsewhere. If it does, we may finally see an adequate reallocation of public funding to meet the challenge.
The Edge documented workplace depression. In the Church of England, we end some services with the sentence: go in peace to love and serve the Lord. They are marvellous, liberating words, but they are not always true. For some, clinical depression means, despite the act of worship they have been in, they go in turmoil to try and serve the Lord. More attention to this reality in our worship, teaching, prayer, pastoral work and, frankly, basic human sharing would go a long way to dignifying the crushing sense so many people have when they step out on a Monday morning and are asked about their weekend.
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