No hiding place

Silence of the Heart: cricket suicides

David Frith <em>Mainstream, 256pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 18401

Given England's Test match results this summer (apart from the Headingley miracle), suicide would seem an appropriate response from everybody involved: selectors, managers, batsmen and bowlers. But this is no laughing matter. At least 20 Test cricketers, including six who played for England, are known to have taken their own lives.

Suicides occur in other sports. Football has several well-known cases, including Hughie Gallacher, the great Scottish forward, Justin Fashanu, who faced charges of homosexual assault in the US and, most poignantly, Billy Callender, a Crystal Palace goalkeeper who hanged himself from his own crossbar in 1932, at the age of 29. But cricket's suicides include some of the greatest names in the history of the game: A E Stoddart and Arthur Shrewsbury, both England captains, who opened the batting together in Australia in 1893; S G Barnes, an Australian who shared gigantic stands with Bradman himself; South Africa's Aubrey Faulkner, the Botham of the Edwardian era; Harold Gimblett, Somerset's sublimely gifted opener, whose century in his first county match made him, at 20, the most famous cricketer in England; and, most recently, David Bairstow, a former Yorkshire captain and England wicket-keeper.

Is this grim roll call of any significance? In 1998, 1.07 per cent of the 264,707 male deaths in the UK were attributable to suicide; according to David Frith's research, of the 339 England Test cricketers who had died by July 2000, 1.77 per cent were suicides. The figures are even higher for Australia (well, they have to beat us at everything, don't they?), South Africa (an astonishing 4.12 per cent) and New Zealand. In all, Frith has unearthed more than 100 examples from all levels of the game.

Needless to say, many of these men committed suicide long after they stopped playing the game. Cricket itself was very rarely the trigger: the usual suspects of drink, poverty, chronic illness and marital strife feature again and again. Yet I suspect the deadly statistics are not just freakish coincidence.

Cricket, as old county cricketers never tire of telling you, is a wonderful and comradely way of life. As Frith suggests, suicide may simply be the result of many players feeling, after retirement, that life can never be as good again. But there is something else. Uniquely among team games, cricket cruelly highlights the temperament, skill and perseverance of the individual. In football, for all the spurious figures of passes completed, tackles made and shots on target, the player's contribution is subsumed in the team effort. If he is dropped, he can always convince himself that it was an injustice, that the other players failed to give him the ball, or the manager adopted the wrong system for his particular talents. The cricketer has no hiding place.

The scorecard reveals to the world - not just to team-mates but to friends, relatives, lovers and most of all himself - exactly what he has done. He can and will blame bad umpiring decisions, poor light and uneven pitches, but not every time. Graeme Hick, one of the most prolific run-scorers in history, knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that, at the highest level, he was never good enough and that the explanation, almost certainly, is his lack of mental toughness. The weight of his runs at other levels exposes him all the more: he has the talent and the concentration, but no metal when the flak is flying. Mark Butcher (with an inferior Test batting average) is clearly made of quite different stuff.

No other game reveals character in this way. I would guess, therefore, that cricket breeds introspection and, in the end, a very acute sense of one's self-worth or lack of it. Consider how the dropped catch, a peculiarly lonely and public humiliation, is regarded in cricket almost as a moral failure. Significantly, football's nearest equivalent - the missed penalty in the shoot-out - is regarded as a cause for sympathy and for managerial assurances that "nobody's blaming the lad in any way". But anybody who has played cricket and dropped a catch knows the sense of reproach that radiates from bowler, captain and team-mates. He also knows the wish for instant oblivion. Is it so surprising that a few of those who played the game eventually grab a loaded gun or a bottle of pills and embrace it?

Peter Wilby is the cricket correspondent of the books pages