Former England and Lancashire batsman Graeme Fowler made a second career for himself as the esteemed head of the Durham University Academy. Now he’s helping young cricketers in a different way: by sharing his experience of depression. He talks to John Stern about a remarkable journey in the game.
Twitter’s 10th birthday in March was greeted with ambivalence, ranging from smug media navel-gazing to the flat-earth grumpiness of Radio 4’s John Humphrys who described Twitter as “utterly pointless”.
For Graeme Fowler, though, the platform of 140-character engagement with the wider public has been “a life saver”. As the former England batsman has confronted mental health issues over the past decade, his army of 12,000-odd Twitter followers have provided him with love and support. Even the publication of an autobiography, Absolutely Foxed, came as a result of a Twitter conversation.
Fowler devised his own scale of mental wellbeing, essentially to help communicate to his family how he was feeling. Ten is neutral, above is positive, below not so good. “If I tweeted ‘MH7’ then a lot of my followers would know what that means and I would just get floods of support back,” Fowler tells AOC. “That makes an enormous difference. I tweet about three things: mental health and cricket – which I try to do seriously – and the third category is just absolute bollocks. I like doing that.”
A chat with ‘Foxy’ covers all three areas with cynical witticism and self-deprecation, with a dodgy pun never far away amid the interesting, intelligent reflections about his life and career. (He’s disappointed that his book is published on May 5, rather than the day before. Why? “May the 4th be with you.”)
Fowler’s 15-year playing career as a left-handed dasher at the top of the order ended in 1994, after 21 England caps and a famous double-century in his penultimate Test at Madras. Accrington-born, he spent his career at Old Trafford before joining Durham at the start of their first-class journey in 1993. In 1996, having settled in Durham, he set up the hugely successful academy scheme at the university that helped develop 60 county players and six England players including Andrew Strauss. In May 2015 he stepped down from his role, a move prompted by changes in priority from MCC, who fund the six university centres in England and Wales, to make the schemes more about community and less about excellence.
He recently called for the ECB to take up the reins at the universities after MCC’s decision to cut their funding by half from 2017. “The reason I set up this scheme was to ensure young people didn’t have to pick between education and cricket,” Fowler told ESPNcricinfo. “The MCC have funded it well for many years but I fear that commitment may be coming to an end. The time really has come for the ECB to take over.
“Not only does this scheme encourage more of the best and brightest players to pursue a career in the game, but it honours the duty of care we should have to them at both ends of their career. We have seen the game make huge progress in preparing players for life after cricket through the sterling work of the PCA. This news threatens a huge retrograde step.”
Last summer was the first for 47 years in which Fowler, 59 in April, had no direct involvement in English cricket. But you can’t keep a good man down and in recent weeks he has been touring the country as part of the PCA’s pre-season educational activity, talking to county players about his experiences, his mental health problems, how to spot the signs and how to deal with them. His has been an unconventional double-act with Chris Lewis.
“Chris is doing a great job talking about personal development – it’s spellbinding,” says Fowler. “He says he basically ignored all the advice when he was a young man. Then when he finished he had nothing. Then he became so frightened and so spooked that he made decisions that he wouldn’t normally have considered.”
Fowler was diagnosed with clinical depression in the winter of 2003/04 though it may well have surfaced much earlier than that. In 2013 Fowler made a video for the PCA about depression. In it he said this: “As soon as the season finished I would lock myself in the house, draw the curtains, unplug the phone, wouldn’t want to talk to anybody and I’d just lie on the sofa watching a big pile of videos from the video store. Looking back, knowing what I know now, they could have been mini-episodes.”
He says now: “I just viewed it as complete exhaustion. Whether that was a precursor to mental health issues later in life I don’t know. I got a great question from a Warwickshire player [when visiting Edgbaston with the PCA] who asked how you know when you’re starting to have a mental health issue.
“It’s a damn good question and I didn’t know. It was my wife who pointed it out to me. It was during the long Christmas break from university in December 2003. I was sitting at home between Christmas and New Year and Sarah just looked at me and said, ‘You need to go to the doctor’s’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You haven’t spoken to anyone for weeks.’
“Then our eight-year-old, Georgina, said, ‘Dad, you just sit in the conservatory reading a Land Rover magazine.’ So I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me with clinical depression. There was no trigger, although looking back I knew something was wrong. But it took someone else to point it out. I realised that I’d been completely flat, I didn’t enjoy anything, colours weren’t bright, nothing was funny, I’d lost interest in everything and didn’t want to talk to anybody.
“What I say to players is to look out for people in your dressing room. You live in each other’s pockets so keep an eye out for your mates. One of your teammates’ behaviour might have drastically altered. Have a word with him, ask him what it is. It could be anything.
“Also, every morning you’ll mentally scan your body because you’re about to go and play cricket. There is nothing wrong with scanning yourself mentally. Am I OK? Have I been OK recently? Have I had any issues? Am I the same as I always am? If there are changes try and talk to someone.
“I give players some tips about how to maintain their mental health when it’s good. Some of those are obvious: get enough sleep, eat the right food, don’t get too drunk. But also you have to switch off at the end of the day. You have to get the day out of your head. You can’t make yourself a better cricketer between eight o’clock at night and nine-thirty in the morning. All you can do is fog up your brain and wind yourself up. And on your day off, do something away from the game. Do something different, something you love, something you’re good at.
“I try to explain the difference between an emotional down and a mental health issue. My wife summarises it like this: she says that if she was feeling down and won the lottery she’d be fine but if I was feeling depressed and won the lottery it wouldn’t make any difference to how I felt.
“Everyone will suffer a physical injury at some point and you’ll get diagnosis, treatment and rehab, then you’re back playing. Statistically, one in four will have a mental health issue – so get it treated, get rehabbed and then hopefully you’ll be back again. There should be no stigma attached.”
Fowler’s formal involvement with the PCA is another part of cricket’s quest to destigmatise mental illness, following on from the revelations from Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott and others. “I’m basically just the PCA consultant lunatic,” Fowler says with a cackle and a disarming lack of political correctness. “At home the kids call me the family loonie. Laughing at things is great therapy. If I can laugh at it when I’m well, then that’s good.”
He adds: “Cricket is leading the way in sport with regards to mental health issues and other issues as well like alcohol and gambling. I spoke to a Premier League football manager a few years ago and I asked what support there was for players with mental health issues. He just said he would sell ’em. I’d like to think that wouldn’t be the case now.”
Fowler’s non-conformist attitudes and ability to articulate them with warmth, honesty and empathy clearly served generations of Durham University cricketers very well. One suspects that, during this pre-season, pros up and down the land have felt that same electricity born of understanding and experience.
Absolutely Foxed is published by Simon & Schuster