Winning book depresses value of writing prize

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Marcus Trescothick is captaining England’s cricket team in a Test in Pakistan when his wife Hayley calls him from home. She already has post-natal depression. Now her father has fallen off a ladder and is unconscious, apparently near death. That night Trescothick barely sleeps. The next day he finishes scoring a brilliant 193. Then Hayley calls and asks: “Please, Marcus. Can you come home?”

He refuses. After all, he’s captaining England. Next thing, Hayley’s grandfather dies. Again she asks Trescothick to come home. Again he refuses. When he finally returns after the tour, his little daughter doesn’t recognise him. “Looking back,” he writes in his autobiography*, which, curiously, won the William Hill award for sports book of the year, “I let Hayley down almost as badly as it was possible to do.”

Soon afterwards, while touring India, Trescothick is hit by a depression that will eventually end his career with England. This book describes how cricket – like many other modern sports – eats its young. Nonetheless, it is categorically not the best of the hundreds of sports books published in Britain this year.

In the first half of this book, Trescothick is a relentlessly ordinary bloke. He lives off sausages, muddles through school, and when he starts playing cricket for England, loves it uncomplicatedly. After yet another victory at Lord’s, as the team sit on the balcony basking in cheers, he turns to an older team-mate, Graham Thorpe, who has just retired from England’s one-day team. “Mate,” he asks Thorpe, “why would you ever want to give all this up?” Thorpe replies: “I’m sorry but I couldn’t give a ****.”

Pretty soon Trescothick understands. Halfway through, the book suddenly turns into a case study in depression. He is homesick and exhausted from unceasing cricket when the illness hits him in an Indian hotel bed. “The thoughts were no longer inanimate,” he and his ghostwriter write. “They were things, beings, beasts, bastards and now they attacked in waves… ‘Oh God, please make it stop’.” Trescothick considers suicide.

He has no idea what is happening. When a doctor tells him it is depression, he feels shame. Surely only weak people get depressed? He is terrified others will find out. He flees back home, and gives a television interview in which he lies that he left the tour because of a virus. This drives Britain’s journalists into a frenzy, as they assume he must be covering up an adulterous affair.

Trescothick acquires a counsellor, who tells him something so momentous that he puts it in capital letters: “IT WAS NOT MY FAULT.”

It’s curious to discover that the taboo on depression survives in some quarters. Certainly many of Trescothick’s colleagues appear to share it. In the dressing-room he acquires the nickname “Madfish”. One would have imagined that only professional sportsmen could be that unreconstructed. But in May 2006, when I saw Trescothick at Lord’s score what proved to be his last Test century, against Sri Lanka, I remarked to a friend that he hadn’t looked in great nick. “Well,” the friend said, “you have to consider that the man is officially mad.”

The book suggests that burn-outs such as Trescothick’s are common in cricket, even if they don’t generally express themselves as depressions. Most cricketers experience what he calls “the ghastly day-merging-into-day grind of international cricket”. Mike Atherton, the former England captain, says in a quote on the book jacket: “All sportsmen, to some degree, die a death in far-off, forgotten hotel rooms.” Often the body gets you before the mind does: Trescothick notes that half the wonderful England team that won the Ashes against Australia in 2005 succumbed to injury soon afterwards. The only other sports as relentless as cricket are probably tennis and gymnastics.

No other literary form has the directness of autobiography – the ascendant genre in British sportswriting these last 20 years – and this time Trescothick tells his story honestly. However, it’s questionable whether that alone merits a William Hill award. Clearly this book wasn’t judged on the writing. Trescothick’s ghost has no pretensions in that regard. Hands are “quick as a cobra’s strike”, and pieces of a jigsaw are “hammered firmly into place”. Cricket has produced more literate memoirs than other sports, but this is not one of them.

Trescothick has a laugh at the massive brains of Ed Smith, briefly an England player who now writes serious books. It’s one thing for Smith to have lost out to Trescothick as a batsman. He must be a bit irked to have lost to him as an author too: Smith’s own What Sport Tells Us About Life didn’t even make William Hill’s shortlist. But Smith is a proper writer, as are the shortlisted John Carlin, Janie Hampton and Jonathan Wilson, the FT football writer. There were already suspicions that the William Hill award was becoming something of a celebrity prize. Now, the pieces of the jigsaw are being hammered firmly into place.

*Coming Back to Me: The Autobiography (HarperSport, £18.99)

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