Jonathan Trott: A Very Public Illness

I watched the recent return of Jonathan Trott to the England Test team with a mixture of concern and sadness. Trott has had an extended sabbatical from international cricket, following the implosion of his batting in the 2012/13 Ashes series, due to what he described as a ‘stress-related illness’.

It has become clear that this is the favoured catch-all term for a variety of mental illnesses, which are still discussed with a certain coyness in sport. Trott also followed the same sequence of events laid down by Marcus Trescothick, of alternating between denial and acceptance. But while the former England left-hander has since come to terms with his mental illness, albeit at the expense of his international career, that never seemed to be the case with Trott.

The Warwickshire batsman went back to county cricket, left again, rejoined and made hay. He also fared well on a Lions tour and was apparently given an all-clear to return to the crucible of Test cricket by a battery of ECB analysts. Trott’s problems, it seemed, were down to fatigue: Pressure, a failure to live up to his own exacting standards – a crisis of confidence, form and temperament that must have been fearful, disturbing, crippling. A terrible vicious circle. It seems to be a peculiarly male problem: the need to provide, prosper and succeed – the failure of which can be devastating to a psyche that is geared up to those goals.

Trott may have viewed his collapse in Australia as letting down his team-mates, family, employers, captain and even country. That it happened in a public spotlight, under hostile conditions and in circumstances that posed extreme physical dangers must have been a shattering experience. A loss of self-image, self-respect; a loss of self-knowledge. To fail at the one thing at which you truly excel; the thing that defines you as a man must be devastating indeed.

Despite a number of international cricketers speaking publicly about their difficulties with mental illness – Trescothick must receive high praise for paving the way for other to follow – Trott received a good deal of criticism from commentators ill-equipped to understand his situation, yet he must bear some of the responsibility for that reaction.

His various explanations as to exactly what was wrong with him suggested that he was experiencing burn-out. Whether Trott was unaware of what was happening to him or deliberately misleading because he feared the end of his career, or loss of face, is still unclear. But it seemed clear that Trott was experiencing a situational anxiety that was divorcing his mind and body in a game where the ability to sum up a situation and react to it correctly in a split second is vital to success and physical well-being. Any batsman fears getting hit at 90mph by a cricket ball – for reasons that became obvious in late 2014.

The England batsman’s technique has seemed bizarre since that Ashes series and his approach to batting highly unusual. He appears uncertain, his judgement clouded. The surprise is that England chose to back Trott in a position and arena that would expose him to fast, hostile bowling despite the fact the root cause of whatever was behind his exit from the team never seemed to have been addressed – because it had never really been acknowledged.

Amid the England set-up and, to some degree, in the media there seems to have been the assumption that Trott had been ‘fixed’ of the anxiety that seems to have crippled him as a sportsman, in the same way that a torn hamstring or chipped bone can be repaired or rehabbed: a physical injury that will simply go away in time.

It’s not necessarily unhelpful to compare mental illness to physical illness in some ways: it can help others understand that there should be no stigma or shame, nor that mental illness cannot be treated; that it can happen to anyone and can be just as debilitating as a broken arm or ripped muscle.

Yet it can be a double-edged sword – such a broad metaphor can also lead people to assume that anxiety, depression and other disorders can be eradicated, never to return. But old cricketers will bear testament that not all physical injuries vanish forever after a few weeks of rest and rehab: nagging anxiety, self-doubt or depression can reappear without warning, just as bone, skin and joints can tell a story on a cold, wet day years later.

Seeing Jonathan Trott bat again against the West Indies recently, it seems clear that whatever issues or affecting him have not been eradicated. It begs some questions as to how wholly the England Cricket Board and sportsmen generally have really grasped the significance of mental illness in high-pressure environments, or they have understood how enduring and difficult it can be.

On one hand it’s to their credit that Trott was given an opportunity to return to the fold, having met every challenge that could reasonably have been expected of him in representing England again. But while commentators and the bulk of the press corps glossed over Trott’s difficulties, his performances led journalist – and friend of Trott – George Dobell to describe him as ‘broken‘.

It seemed a starkly brutal term, yet it seems hard to disagree with the view that, as a cricketer, the Trott of 2015 is a very different beast from the Trott of 2010: the Trott who compiled vast, serene centuries against the best bowling attacks in the world. The strange, kamikaze walks down the wicket to fast bowlers, alarm at short balls and uncertain shot selection suggest more than a lack of form or luck – they suggest a temperament and technique that had slipped their moorings.

Jonathan Trott was Andy Flower’s ‘rock’. That, in itself, seems to hint at the dichotomies of mental illness and suggests why we’re so poorly-equipped to comprehend and react to it. From ‘rock’ to ‘broken’ in two short years. How is that possible?

Perhaps what the Trott saga indicates most of all is that our lexicon is still lacking when it comes to explaining mental illness. The words that are bandied around – broken, burnout, fatigue – vary between crude and coy. ‘Stress-related illness’, that most famous cop-out, reeks of management-speak. The embarrassment and awkwardness with which these maladies are discussed continue to hold back our understanding of mental illness and that lack of understanding necessarily means a lack of empathy and tolerance towards it.

Jonathan Trott may have been a fine servant for English cricket for several years, but his abortive return to the England team demonstrates the strange omerta over mental illness in sport still holds sway.

Originally written for Opening Up