Getting it Wrong: opprobrium aimed at ball-tamperers has a darker side

In the light of mental health difficulties experienced by some cricketers, Nigel Henderson wonders if those caught up in the events at Newlands need a little understanding and what might happen to them if they don’t get it.

It may seem odd amid the fallout over the ball-tampering affair that Steve Waugh should be the one to counsel us against losing sight of “the social impact and mental health of all players” subject to widespread condemnation in the incident.

For was it not he, all those years ago, who urged ‘mental disintegration’ upon his opponents? Maybe he didn’t mean it literally. Or maybe it was just that in the late 1980s and 1990s depression, stress-related illnesses and the like were rarely spoken about, not to mention high on nobody’s agenda outside hospital psychiatric wards and cavernous Harley Street dwellings.

But even if he was talking merely about the dismantling of technique rather than nervous or emotional collapse there is something sinister about the phrase: it suggests the slow, tortuous – indeed, torturous – wrecking of an individual’s sense of self, the agonising stripping away of all those things that constitute his ego, one he has spent a lifetime constructing and supporting; and all done in the glare of the public in the stands, at home watching again and again in frame-by-frame detail, and in the media boxes where commentators and writers vie to be the first to pull the strings that bring the curtain down on another once-promising career.

So, think again about Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. The opprobrium heaped upon them seems to have been on another level entirely – and from all quarters, not least social media, something we did not have to factor into the equation when Waugh was relishing Shane Warne’s occupation of Daryl Cullinan’s headspace as the South African “slowly succumbed, while being exposed to the point of humiliation”. They have been portrayed as devils from the seventh circle of Dante’s inferno – the section reserved for those who have committed violent crimes against their fellow man – rather than cricketers who tried to bend the Laws to their advantage when nothing was quite happening for their bowlers, a relatively minor sin that is not even one of the best kept secrets in the game.

If, though, for many outside Australia, the general feeling is that this is a team that has got its comeuppance – Smith and his vice-captain had presided over an operation in which even as mild a man as Nathan Lyon felt emboldened to suggest before the Ashes that he was looking forward to ending the careers of a number of Englishmen, while sanctimoniously positioning his team as arbiters of behavioural limits – the rage (and outrage) has been most keenly felt in their own backyard. The Australian sporting psyche has been damaged in the eyes of many cricket fans in the nation – some would argue irreparably.

To some that justifies the outcry; there is a sense of the outworking of karma. But at what point do we decide that that Lords of Cause and Effect have had their fill – and are now just getting greedy? Do we risk forgetting the lessons learned and the strides made from hearing and reading of the experiences of Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, Michael Yardy, Sarah Taylor, Iain O’Brien?

Perhaps top-level sportsmen are expected to possess a superior mental fortitude, and it is, admittedly, one of the qualities we – as ‘consumers’ of sport – look for in the most outstanding of athletes. Yet, while some cricketers who have gone public with their mental health difficulties say their depression seemed to come from nowhere (Graeme Fowler, the former England opener, is one) for others there is a reactive element to their condition. As Ed Cowan, the recently retired Australia and Tasmania batsman, revealed in a 2011 article: “A professional sportsman is his performances. From experience I can say it can feel like you have ceased to exist when failure is the story of your day.”

How much more difficult then for Smith, Warner and Bancroft, who have failed not so much in their performances on the field as in their performances as icons for a nation, their duties as men, perhaps, as sportsmen in the wider understanding of the term? The word “cheat” has been liberally bandied about, but despite several entreaties to do so, James Sutherland stopped short of using it in his initial press conference in South Africa, before later reluctantly agreeing that the term was “appropriate”. Perhaps the Cricket Australia chief executive was mindful of Ian Chappell’s observation to Channel 9 that the label is “almost impossible to live down. It can have a really big impact on a player. Smith will have to be really strong to overcome this”.

Steven Sylvester, a sports psychologist at present working with the West Indies, agrees and argues that the problem should not be individualised but rather seen as a systems error. “That will be the hardest thing to wrestle with,” he says, “because they didn’t really see it as cheating. Smith didn’t action this, he kind of turned a blind eye to it. All they’ve done is got caught. Every team will have had those discussions about changing the dynamics of the ball and almost every country’s been involved in ball-tampering. I see it as a ball management process each team goes through.”

And even if the sanctions that brought year-long bans for Smith and Warner and a nine-month one for Bancroft were aimed more at the deceit and degree of premeditation behind the act rather than the act itself, Sylvester maintains that the framework of Australian cricket more than shares culpability. “They’re demonising three cricketers for doing something when the system has pushed these young men to win at all costs.”

Demonising, perhaps, is the operative word. Few individuals since Lucifer have experienced the fall that Smith will now have to negotiate. From a man gazing down from the top of the world after a hugely successful Ashes campaign decorated with astonishing personal achievement with the bat, he suddenly finds himself at the bottom of a deep pit of despair – as evidenced by his tearful statement to the media on arrival back in Australia – desperately looking for a way to climb out.

Sylvester admits it will be hard, and that he – and the others – will need a good support team around them, arguing that contrary to popular belief, sports stars are no better at dealing with criticism, disappointment and anger than the rest of us. “They’re human beings like everyone else,” he points out. “We live in a society with social media where everyone’s got an opinion. There’s a lot of negativity out there. In the main, I deal with high-level sportsmen who have to cope with pure rage and hatred. It is a real feat and a careful art to help young sportsmen handle the fallout of something like this, getting things wrong.”

The vastly experienced Australian broadcaster Glenn Mitchell also points the finger at social media, saying that it adds to the noise in the mainstream because the mainstream now feels a need to report it. “Most of the uncalled-for bile and over-the-top reactions are generated here on social media. I think it is difficult for the mainstream media not to report it in an honest and forthright sense when the informal is there.”

Sylvester, though, who has worked with a number of England and Australian players as well as in county cricket with Middlesex, thinks that it is unrealistic to expect the keyboard warriors to lay down their arms – “I don’t think you can,” he says, – but he does have some words of advice for the maligned players, ways in which they can recover the people they feel they are inside, perhaps only better.

“If I was to help Smith and Warner I would tell them that they are global icons for entertainment and every comment they hear that vilifies them or not is just part of that entertainment,” he says. “Either hero or villain, it doesn’t really matter which. Reject both positions. It’s like pantomime. There are cheers and boos and you’re on the boos side for a year. It’s what you are going to do to make the boos softer and the cheers louder. What charity things can you get involved with, what can the governing body do to support you, what school functions can you attend? I would be preaching to them that it is an opportunity to change exactly what they do.”

It seems that some level of charity is breaking out at home too. Jeremy Henderson, a Pom who had turned Australian supporter within four years of landing in the country as a backpacker in 1970, had been outspoken on Twitter before giving full vent to his feelings on the website of alternative commentary service, calling the affair “a stupendous act of bastardry” and vowing never to watch a team containing Smith and Warner again – Bancroft he excused as the junior player they had sacrificed.

In a piece dripping with emotion he laid bare the soul of nation: “The sense of betrayal and loss is immense and we feel as if something very precious has been stolen from us,” he wrote. “Our own integrity as a country is bound up in their behaviour, and that has been ripped apart.”

However, time – and sanctions – have helped Henderson, and perhaps his fellow countrymen, begin the healing process. “I find it interesting that my anger with Smith and Warner has virtually evaporated now that they have received their punishment,” he tweeted later. “I can feel considerable sympathy for them as individuals and I suspect many Australians will react likewise.”

Maybe it’s all a redemption song, Mr Waugh. We needed disintegration before we could have reintegration.

Steve Sylvester is the author of Detox Your Ego: 7 steps to achieving freedom, happiness and success in your life.

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