By Nick Harris
23 May 2016
The first peer-reviewed academic study on the phenomenon of suicide among Test cricketers has concluded the sport is ‘not to blame’ and there is no evidence of a higher incidence of such deaths among players than among the general population.
Academics from England and Australia found instead that the Test player suicides over the past century have mostly involved middle-aged players long after retirement, suffering with a variety of ‘common risk factors’ associated with many men at that stage of life, from declining physical health to financial problems, relationship difficulties and alcohol misuse.
Over a number of decades, cricket has found itself with a reputation that it may somehow contribute to unusually high levels of Test players taking their own lives.
A 2001 news report mistakenly claimed English cricketers were ‘twice as likely’ to kill themselves than the average male.
Organisations as august as The British Psychological Society (here in 2011) and the New Statesman (here in 2013) have linked cricket to depression and suicide while multiple articles have come to stark conclusions along the lines that many players suffer depression ‘and a significant number of them end up taking their lives’.
An examination of the available data by this website in 2011 queried whether there was a genuinely unusual number of cricketer suicides or whether perceptions had been blurred. (Cricket’s darkest statistics and why assumptions about suicide might be wrong.)
But now a first comprehensive paper on the subject, examining the individual circumstance of every Test player to die by his own hand – co-authored by academics from England and Australia – concludes:
“We began this study to determine if the idiosyncrasies of cricket were to blame for the high rate of suicide amongst male Test cricketers. That suicides occurred a median of 16 years after retirement suggests the importance of non-cricket-related factors. We conclude that ‘cricket is not to blame,’ given that the demographic, social and clinical characteristics of Test cricketers who committed suicide are similar to those in the general population.”
The study was led by Prof Ajit Shah of the University of Central Lancashire and involved psychiatrists Chanaka Wijeratne and Brian Draper of the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Their paper ‘Are elite cricketers more prone to suicide? A psychological autopsy study of Test cricketer suicides’ has just been published in the journal Australasian Psychiatry. An abstract of the paper is here.
It is important to note that it is specifically Test players who were considered. This gave the researchers a finite group of individuals to study from whom to draw conclusions, rather than a group much less easy to quantify effectively, such as ‘cricketers’.
The study identified suicides in Test players from England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa between the first known case (William Scotton in 1893) and the last (the passing of David Bairstow in 1998).
The paper says: ‘The absence of suicides amongst Test cricketers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the West Indies is noteworthy and may, in part, be explained by the shorter duration of Test cricket played by these countries. The vast differences in religious and cultural practices leading to variable reporting of suicides, death registration facilities, acceptance of alcohol and firearm legislation make it difficult to provide a unifying explanation.’
The methodology of the study was similar to that used in psychological autopsy studies, covering demography and each player’s cricket career, post-cricket occupation, retirement issues, mental and physical health, substance use, details of the suicide, and life events in the year before suicide.
There have been few suicides of active players. Indeed the only cases of Test players below the age of 40 were Scotton (aged 37 in 1893), South Africa’s Vincent Tancred (who shot himself aged 28 in 1904) and Billy Zulch of South Africa, aged 38 when he died in 1924.
The paper says: ‘Most [victims] had been retired for over a decade and were middle-aged or older … The overall picture from the psychological autopsy was not particularly different from what could be expected in the general population of middle-aged and older male suicides.’
It adds: ‘An important finding is that there have been no suicides amongst Test cricketers since 1998, although several prominent cricketers have openly talked about depression and stress-related illnesses in this time.
‘Factors that may have contributed to this include the recent availability of psychological support systems for both active cricketers and those transitioning to retirement, and the dramatic economic growth of cricket so that is likely to now attract highly driven personalities who have been well prepared physically and psychologically.’
The authors of the report also suggest that no suicides of Test players since 1998 may also, in some part, be attributable to the tightening of firearms legislation in the nations were the previous incidents occurred; the most common cause of death in those cases has been self-inflicted gunshots.
It also says: ‘The post-retirement welfare of Test cricketers should remain a focus of concern and the greater supports available to contemporary Test cricketers needs to extend beyond retirement.’