Former Kent and England under 19 fast bowler Simon Cusden looked set for a bright future in the game before loss of form, personal issues and mismanagement cost him his career. The descent into alcoholism that followed very nearly cost him his life. He spoke to Jo Harman, a former school friend and teammate, about chasing a boyhood dream that turned sour.
At the age of 19, Simon Cusden was living every aspiring young cricketer’s dream. An England under 19 international capable of bowling 90mph, and a hard hitting lower-order batsman, he had progressed through the age-group sides at Kent and taken a wicket with his very first delivery in professional cricket, clean bowling Mal Loye in a 40-over match at Canterbury in 2004. A week earlier he had faced Shane Warne on debut at the Rose Bowl.
I was a friend of Simon’s and had followed his progress with a mix of pride and envy. We shared the new ball for our school team, played village cricket in the same side as both our dads, and often went drinking together at weekends.
My dad and I had been to watch Simon’s debut at the Rose Bowl, hoping the rain clouds would clear long enough for him to have a bowl. A month later a friend and I took a day off work and travelled to Worcester to watch his County Championship debut at New Road.
“Cuzzy was raw but he had good pace and he could get good players out,” says David Fulton, Kent captain between 2002 and 2005. “He wasn’t always completely sure where it was going but he was exciting. As a captain you’re always looking for that bit of x-factor, and we thought we had it with Cuzzy.”
Later that summer Simon took six wickets in a Championship fixture against Northants, four of which were clean bowled, charging down the hill at Canterbury and bowling genuinely fast. “He bowled quickly in that match,” recalls Fulton. “It all came together and we predicted a bright future for him.”
That would prove to be the peak of his brief career, though. Simon lost form, fell out of favour at Kent and, after being released by the county in 2006, spent a year playing for Derbyshire’s second XI before being thrown on county cricket’s scrapheap. Aged 22, the career that Simon had always dreamed of was over before it had really begun. He moved to Australia and aside from sporadic communication on social media, and a brief meet up in London in 2008, we lost touch.
I’d heard through a mutual friend that Simon was having a tough time in Australia but I had no idea how bad things had got until a press release from the PCA arrived in my inbox earlier this summer. In it Simon described his long-standing addiction to alcohol, the way his life had spiralled out of control, and gave a harrowing account of a suicide attempt where he had tied a rock to his foot and thrown himself in a river in Sydney.
“After maybe a minute or so, my whole body started fighting it,” he said. “It wasn’t my mind – my mind wanted to stay there until it was over. But something in me wanted to not die. So I swam to the surface, even though this rock was almost too heavy to lift. I climbed out and remember being really annoyed because I couldn’t even kill myself. I sat on the grass and thought: ‘I really do only know how to drink’.”
Simon later contacted the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) for help. They organised his flight back to England and three months of rehab upon his return. “If it wasn’t for the PCA then I would be dead,” he said.
Reading all this I couldn’t square it with the Simon I knew. I’d been aware that he had an addictive personality and that he liked a drink but never to the extent that I saw it as a problem. I could have said the same about any number of friends I’d had growing up. Had his aborted cricket career done this to him? Or were these underlying issues and I’d simply not noticed them? I’d never completely understood the rapid decline in Simon’s career. Perhaps it was as a result of his drinking.
I contacted Simon on Twitter and got an immediate response. A few weeks later I took a train to Derby where he was rebuilding his life and working as a cricket coach.
“In 2004, I had such belief,” Simon tells me. “I was really driven and focused. I didn’t bowl well every time I bowled that year but it just didn’t bother me. I just kept bowling. I always believed I was going to do well. No one expected anything from me and every time I went out there was a bonus. I was part of an amazing team that ended up coming second in the Championship.
“That winter I got really fit and trained and trained and trained, but I also did a lot more drinking because I was getting paid. Then 2005 came along and I had all this information being thrown at me, because coaches were trying to help me. It was Graham Ford’s first year as coach and I bowled poorly very early on in the nets and I knew something was different. I felt different. I started taking on all the advice, I changed my run-up, I changed my action. I just never bowled well that year.”
Having had such high hopes for Simon the previous season, Fulton became aware that he had tailed off badly. But with matches and trophies to win, and Simon drifting out of the first-team set-up, he admits his attention was elsewhere.
“When we came back in 2005 I heard stories that Cuzzy wasn’t even hitting the cut strip,” says Fulton. “It was going straight into the side-netting. A bit like when Steven Finn was considered ‘unselectable’. It was a real shame because he was a guy that you rooted for and you wanted to pick. You sometimes see with young players that they go away and think, ‘How can I get better?’ and they start to look at their technique, tinker with stuff and sometimes in trying to get better they go backwards. Whatever he and the coaches tried just didn’t work for him.
“I look back at Cuzzy and also David Stiff – an England under 19 fast bowler we got from Yorkshire who I think 12 counties were after; he played the first game of 2004 and looked a world-beater – and both those guys went backwards quite quickly on our watch. I look back and think, ‘What could we have done differently?’ I know Stiff was homesick and Cuzzy was having some technical issues, and I’ve later found out some psychological issues too, and maybe some advice from a sports psychologist could have helped. Looking back, we probably didn’t do our best by them. We all could have done more.”
What Fulton and the rest of the coaching and playing staff at Kent didn’t know was that during the 2005 season Simon’s younger sister Rhiannon was battling cancer. After going into remission at the beginning of the year her body had rejected a bone marrow transplant and she died in October at the age of 18.
“For years and years I blamed Kent for not supporting me but how can you support someone that doesn’t open up?” says Simon. “I didn’t tell anybody. I just spent more time doing the things that numbed the pain and less time investing in the things that made me feel pain. Bowling became a painful thing to do because I’d lost my way and drinking became a painkiller. I was living in a flat opposite the county ground and that winter I drank so much on my own. By the time 2006 came along it had snowballed. It was a traumatic year for me because Kent gave up on me, I had a drinking problem and I wasn’t playing. I didn’t even play many second XI games and basically became 12th man for the first team. When I was released at the end of the year that was really painful. I wasn’t expecting it, stupidly. I don’t even remember the conversation. I’ve shut that out.”
He moved to Derbyshire, still intent on carving out a career as a professional cricketer, but was released the following summer after just one first-team appearance. It was when he subsequently moved to Hobart that the drinking really took hold.
“When I left professional cricket that was when my drinking got out of control because I didn’t have the structure of going to the gym. I played grade cricket in Hobart and played really well but I was enjoying every form of freedom off the field. By the end of the season that started to catch up with me because my addiction was really taking over.”
Simon set up a coaching business, My Coach Cricket, and ran it successfully for six months before his drinking and resulting debts forced him to sell up. “I drank more and more and the whole thing started spiralling again until my wife and I broke up.”
He took a well-paid job as director of cricket at a prestigious private school in Sydney and cleared his debts before falling off the wagon. “For nine months I was sober, I paid off my debts and suddenly I had money and nothing to spend it on. I thought I could have another drink and within three months I was living in a tent on a nature reserve. I’d fully lost the plot. I was drinking two or three bottles of whisky a day. I just couldn’t stop.”
It was at this time that Simon attempted to commit suicide. Dismayed at his failure to do so, he drunk drove to Byron Bay to sleep rough on the beach. “I just decided to drink cheap whisky until I died. But then I woke up on the beach one morning, really sick, and decided that I didn’t want to drink anymore. That was the last time I had a drink. It was like it had left me.
“I had no phone at the time, had no idea what date it was, and three months later I was trying to work out the date that I got sober. It was March 20, my sister Rhiannon’s birthday. And I’d had no idea.”
Simon decided to start his life afresh in Bali but after feeling himself sliding towards drink once again, it was then that he called the PCA for help and started rehab.
Given all he’s been through, I was expecting Simon to feel resentment towards a game that offered him so much before snatching it away. That’s certainly the attitude I remember from him after his release by Kent. But after a long period of reflection he sees things very differently.
“I didn’t become an addict because I failed in my cricket career,” he says firmly. “Whatever emotional capacity a sportsman is meant to have, I didn’t. I couldn’t deal with that level of pressure or uncertainty. I re-entered the game this year with a lot more appreciation for what cricket has done for me. Without my cricket, I wouldn’t have gone through rehab. The reason the PCA were there for me is because I’m a cricketer.
“Cricket is the thing that’s taught me most about myself. It’s the thing that has helped me make friends. It’s the thing that allowed me to go to the other side of the world. So many people who come out of rehab don’t have what I have because they haven’t played cricket. I get to ring my mate in Derby and go, ‘Can I come and play for your club?’.”
Simon does concede, though, that even during the good times the reality of professional cricket fell well short of his boyhood dream. “I didn’t enjoy it when I was going through it,” he says. “I put myself under way too much pressure so that even if I did well I’d find something to beat myself up about.
“That’s really the core of this for me. Cricket was an escape for me from a very difficult childhood. It gave me all the things that childhood should be about: feeling good, having friends, expressing yourself, being outside. But my childhood wasn’t like that, apart from cricket. That all changed when cricket became less about freedom and it became more about performing well, expectations and pressure. As soon as cricket became pressured for me, I had nowhere to go. Suddenly I had the pressure-filled, no-escape environment of my family, and the pressure-filled, no-escape environment of cricket, and that’s when the drinking started to take over.”
I ask Simon when he has had the most fun on a cricket field. “My first game back, for my club in Derbyshire after rehab. I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it. The last game I’d played was a grade final in Canberra and I was going through a horrendous time. I struggled through six overs, we won and I went on a five-day bender. I thought that was me and cricket done.
“Now there’s an element of getting back to why I played cricket in the first place. I loved to bat for two reasons: to win games and to feel the ball on the bat. Now when I play cricket I focus on those two things. If I get out I’m going to get out trying to hit the ball. If I get out playing defensively I really struggle with that because I’m not playing the game how I love to play it. (Two days after we meet up, Simon scores a club record 187 from 100 balls – 14 sixes – in a 50-over match for Elvaston.)
“I think cricket is moving much more towards that. I love what TB [Trevor Bayliss] and Farby [Paul Farbrace] are doing with England. It’s like, ‘Enjoy your talent’. There were days when I was so focused on where the ball was going that I wasn’t appreciating how bloody quickly I was bowling.”
I put it to Simon that he was the type of player that would have enjoyed the freedom that has permeated through cricket since the advent of T20. “That is the one thing…” he says, and pauses. “It’s not even worth talking about, but if T20 had been around in 2001, would I have thought differently about my cricket? It’s a different game now and I would have been in my element. I had a gun arm, I hit the ball hard and I bowled fast. But I don’t have any regrets about not making loads of money because I probably wouldn’t be alive. Imagine having an IPL contract and a drinking problem!”
Alongside his work as a cricket coach, Simon is travelling around the country talking to school children about mental health and addiction, promoting mindfulness as a means of coping with the challenges that life might throw at you. He has also discussed the possibility of talking to current professional cricketers about his own experiences through the PCA.
“If I do speak to young cricketers my message wouldn’t actually be very cricket-related. It would be more focused on the uncertain nature of cricket and trying to find something certain within it. There are a hundred things that can influence a cricket career that are out of your control. But there is some certainty that you can take with you beyond your cricket career. When you place your whole identity on being a bowler, what happens when you bowl poorly? The best cricketers I’ve seen are those who have a very strong awareness that cricket is something they do, not something they are.”