Eager cricket fans will have noticed last month the surprise withdrawal from the England team of one of the sport’s greatest female players, wicketkeeper/batter Sarah Taylor, someone I have often cited as an example of an elite female sportsperson occasionally competing in male sporting competitions. This week she opened up about her reasons: it seems that mental health issues have played havoc with her enjoyment of the sport and her recent performances on the field of play.
It is often said that cricket is one of the crueller sports for people with mental health difficulties. With batters in particular playing permanently on a knife’s-edge between hard-fought success and instant failure, and with bowlers sometimes more at the mercy of an individual batter’s talent rather than their own accuracy, there is little margin for error. There have been many high-profile cases of top England players withdrawing from the sport or suffering psychological aftereffects, including Marcus Trescothick, Graeme Fowler, Michael Yardy, and Jonathan Trott.
The tangible effects of this pressure can manifest in a variety of different ways. Sarah Taylor talked in her interview about finding herself feeling like throwing up before a game, brought about by her self-imposed pressure to perform and achieve, which ironically had the opposite effect. Monty Panesar, until recently part of the England team, has also recently talked about the disruptive behaviour and irritability in his temperament that accompanied his mental health problems. His transformation from affable and friendly to negative and aggressive confused some of his teammates and made it hard for them to understand the situation, or know how to be supportive.
As someone who has experienced both the queasy sensation before playing, and the irritability of anxiety, I am very familiar with these challenges. Sometimes playing a match can refocus you on the moment and shift the anxiety, as happened to me in a ultimately very successful match earlier this week, when I started out needing to do breathing exercises in pauses in play to stay calm, but ultimately pulled my team back from certain defeat to a close finish. Other times you have to accept you simply cannot perform, and have to withdraw, although there is a lot of stigma attached to leaving a team short of players.
Ultimately every individual must do what is right for them, whether taking a break like Taylor, changing clubs like Panesar, or seeking greater support like Fowler. It is not always easy for teammates, but it is important that they remember that ultimately they only experience the peripheral effects and do not have to live every day with the gut-wrenching sensations and mental fogginess.