Retiring from their sport can hit professional cricketers hard, but a new mentoring scheme at Yorkshire County Cricket Club aims to help. Chris Waters reports.
WHEN Anthony McGrath retired from first-class cricket last February, he was struck by a suffocating sense of loss.
The former Yorkshire and England all-rounder admits the transition came as “a shock to the system”; he had been involved with Yorkshire since the age of 11.
Now the 38-year-old is to help others deal with this difficult adjustment in a mentoring role at the Yorkshire club - believed to be the first of its kind in county cricket.
For as well as helping out with coaching, McGrath will facilitate the change from cricket pitch to workplace, one which many professionals find challenging to make.
Cricketers tend to cope less well with this transition into “real life” than individuals from other sports.
The statistics prove it.
Without wishing to paint too bleak a picture, cricket has a higher suicide rate than the majority of sports, while a study at the turn of the millennium found that cricketers are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as the average British male - 1.77 per cent to 1.07 per cent.
The all-consuming nature of the game - the long days and nights away from home and family, the capacity for prolonged periods of inactivity and brooding introspection - creates an intensity that can leave a yawning chasm once players have retired.
The suicide of former Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper David Bairstow in 1998 was felt in part attributable to difficulties in adjusting to life outside cricket, while Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick are among the recent high-profile cricketers who have suffered from mental illness.
McGrath, one of the great figures of Yorkshire’s modern cricket history, was one of the luckier ones. Although he found life outside the dressing room a bitter pill to swallow, he pulled through with the help of a loving family and close circle of friends, along with his own determination to build a new life.
Significantly, as last season’s scorecards no longer bore the entry “A. McGrath” for the first time since 1995, that life still included some involvement with the game.
As summer unfolded, McGrath found occasional coaching work at Yorkshire and some media work with Sky Sports and Yorkshire Radio, while he has recently taken part in the Yorkshire Post’s Ashes podcasts.
Others, however, are less fortunate.
Those without avenues of opportunity comparable, say, to that of Joe Sayers, the former Yorkshire batsman who retired earlier this month to pursue a career in the financial world, can face an uncertain future.
It is that uncertainty which McGrath hopes to address in his new role at Headingley, which he takes up immediately.
And who better to assist than someone who can empathise with the unique challenges presented by post-cricketing life, a man who now happily finds himself back firmly in the bosom of a game he graced with distinction.
“I know what it’s like when you’ve stopped playing, and it’s a shock to the system,” said McGrath, who scored 14,091 first-class runs in 242 games for Yorkshire.
“All of a sudden, you go from living the game every day 24/7 - playing, training, travelling to matches, thinking about cricket all the time - to having no involvement.
“The hardest part for me was the first few games of last summer.
“When the Yorkshire lads went to Barbados for pre-season, and then when they played the first few county matches, that was when it really hit me.
“Suddenly, you realise this is no more and you’ve finished playing, and you’re kind of on the outside looking in.
“It’s a very difficult adjustment and there are different degrees of transition depending on each individual.
“Fortunately, I’ve got good friends and family around me and I was able to talk things through with them when I needed.
“The key for me was getting back involved by doing a bit of coaching work at Yorkshire and some work in the media, which really helped me to bridge the gap.” When Sayers announced his retirement, aged just 30, he said that one of the big things for him was that he never allowed cricket to define him.
This is particularly important.
All of us, to some extent or other, define ourselves by our jobs and performance, which, if not careful, can also define our sense of self-worth.
Sayers - physics graduate from Oxford, accomplished guitarist, talented painter, and so on - has a broader spectrum of interests than most, which has not only helped him to move on but, more importantly, one hopes, never look back.
It is something McGrath plans to emphasise to the present Yorkshire squad once his mentoring duties assume full swing.
“I think one of the big things I’ll be looking to stress is that you’ve got to have other interests outside cricket,” he said.
“Even though the game is important, and it’s certainly been an enormously important part of my life, there really are other things in life as well.
“It’s a short career; if you retire in your 30s you’ve still got, hopefully, another 50-60 years to live, so that’s a long time.
“It’s also important to keep busy; guys who’ve run into trouble post-cricket have probably had that boredom element as well and not been able to fill their time, and it’s then that the mind wanders and things like depression take hold.”
Perhaps the hardest thing for any former cricketer today is adjusting from the institutionalised environment most of them have known since adolescence.
In days of yore, when Yorkshire cricketers such as the late, great Fred Trueman would supplement their income by working in the mines, sportsmen had much more life experience and, by and large, were more rounded people.
Nowadays, particularly at international level, cricketers inhabit a mollycoddled world and develop an attendant sense of entitlement which can leave them vulnerable once they retire.
“You’re institutionalised now,” said McGrath, who played four Tests and 14 one-day internationals.
“You’re pretty much told what to do from when you leave school, and, as a cricketer, there is always something set out for you.
“Your meals, travel and everything are all provided and you wake up one day when you’ve retired and it’s almost like you’re on your own.
“All of a sudden, everything is not laid on and you don’t have to be at training at a certain time, and it’s all very strange - particularly if you’ve been doing it for a long period.”
McGrath’s new job will be “a little bit suck it and see” with no set hours.
He believes Yorkshire deserve credit for a ground-breaking initiative.
“I think it’s a great idea by the club and more clubs should follow suit,” he said.
“I already know most of the players very well, so I’ve got an insight into how their minds work and stuff like that.
“There’s a coaching element to the role too, helping players with any technical issues alongside the existing coaching structure. “But the other side of it, the mental and mentoring side, is something that really interests me.”
McGrath will mentor not only players in their 30s but younger ones too.
“I’ll be there for all the lads, no matter how old or what the circumstances may be,” he added.
“Players get released at an early age as well, perhaps off the Academy, or have to pack up through injury, so it’s not just about talking to people in their 30s.
“That’s the thing with sport, you never know what’s around the corner.
“It’s why it’s so important that we prepare our lads for a life after cricket.”