Monday, March 28, 2011

Marcus Trescothick – Coming Back To Me

I usually avoid ghosted autobiographies but was intrigued by this one, which won the Sports Book of the Year Award in 2008 (the only only other ghost to win was the cyclist Lance Armstrong's).
For one thing, Marcus Trescothick is one of the best batsmen to have played for England in the past quarter century, with almost a thousand test runs a year over six years and 26 centuries almost evenly divided between tests and ODIs. What's more, they were scored in style, using a straightforward, attacking technique like a left-handed Graham Gooch.

For another, he's a Bristol boy, Keynsham born but raised in the city's eastern fringe. He went to the Sir Bernard Lovell School in Oldland Common when I was, with what I now see was undue optimism, trying to foster an understanding of Gladstone's domestic reforms just down the road in Kingswood. Indeed, the staffs of the two schools used to play cricket against each other, and he may have been one of the kids on the boundary, laughing at my field placings.

He was pointed out to me in the clubrooms of Keynsham CC in 1991. Half the people in the room were telling the other half that the tall, podgy kid at the bar would play for England one day.

Some of the book is much like any of the genre, a plod through the tests and tours, with plenty of anecdote, and a little insight. The impression that comes across confirms what I've heard about Marcus from those who know him and his family: that he is a decent, gentle person who is a credit to the game. He even asterisks out the swear words, which is rather sweet.

Of course, it is difficult, given the self-effacing conventions of the sportsman's autobiography, to do justice to the big moments. So the most disappointing part of the book is the rather rushed account of the 2005 Ashes series, the greatest of our time. In particular, there is no sense of how uplifting his opening partnership with Andrew Strauss was on the first day of the Edgbaston test, its commitment to attack a statement that, at last, England were not going to roll over after one defeat.

But there is enough to understand why the shy lad from the West Country was asked to join the tour committee on his first trip away as an England player, and we share his joy at those times when he is so confident and in command of himself and the bowlers that he can't see how he can get out.

But the reason why this is an exceptional book is not the story of the runs and the catches. It is the brutally frank account of how he was brought down by several waves of severe depression, which, to the great regret of cricket lovers everywhere, ended his international career many years prematurely.

The book opens with Trescothick sitting on the floor of a Heathrow Airport shop, sobbing with dread as the darkness catches up with him again as he prepares to leave for a pre-season jaunt to the UAE with Somerset in 2008. As his story is told, he spots portents of what is to come. Extreme homesickness on his first trip away from home, and feeling out of it at the start of every cricket tour (of which there were many from an early age). In New Zealand in 2002, the oddness was particularly sharp. I ran across him again at this time as CricInfo's man at the opening game of the tour, when he led England against Northern Districts:

As the press pack broke up I approached him to pass on greetings from a mutual acquaintance. I noted at the time that he seemed a bit empty behind the eyes, but put it down to jetlag and frustration at being asked dim questions by amateur journalists, and perhaps it was, but it was a look consistent with the emotions he describes having at that time.

It was in Pakistan in late 2005 that it first sunk its teeth deep into him. The trigger was a serious accident sustained by his father-in-law, who fell off a ladder while maintaining the Trescothicks' house. Marcus had to watch the accident, replayed from security cameras, on his laptop in a hotel room in Pakistan so that the details could be passed on to doctors in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, an experience that would test anybody's resilience. He speculates that things might have been different had he gone home straight away, as he would have done had Michael Vaughan not talked him out of it (Vaughan was injured, and Trescothick was stand-in captain).

Hurried retreats from India and Australia followed over the next twelve months. That he is able to describe so clearly the hopelessness, the desperation, the confusion, the helplessness, the torment, the brief contemplation of the unthinkable, is cheering as it means that he has reached some understanding of what has happened to him. It will be grimly familiar to anybody who has stood by helplessly as a loved one is taken down by depression, and has done a great deal to help understanding of the illness.

Moved as I was, a reservation nagged away. Some of the writing, actually quite a lot of the writing, isn't very good. Peter Hayter of the Mail on Sunday is more a poltergeist than a ghost at times, though the chapters on the depression are better. But there's much too much like this, taken at random from a paragraph on the 2005 series:

And now Glenn McGrath didn't so much let the air out of the balloon as stamp all over it...he made Straussy and me look like camels in clogs.
This isn't Trescothick's voice. It isn't anybody's voice. I couldn't help thinking what a good job David Foot would have done here. Could such leaden prose really merit the Sports Book of the Year Award, however gripping and important its story?

Then, as I started to make notes for this piece, the news broke that England all-rounder Michael Yardy was leaving the World Cup because he is suffering from depression.

Like most sufferers, Marcus had to hide his condition and pretend that it was something else for a long time, which is exhausting and makes things worse. Yardy feels able to be straightforward about how he is, and does not have to increase his agony by pretending that it is otherwise. The cricket world (apart from the odious Boycott, who has passed his sell-by date going in the other direction), has reacted supportively and with some understanding.

That's because Marcus Trescothick told his story. This book, in a small way, has made the world a better place for others to live in, and how many sports books in any year have done that?

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