Jonathan Trott looks back on the highs and lows of his England career and warns of the dangers of “going in two-footed” on a player whose career is on the line.
“I wanted to bat through it. I treated it like a Test match. I wanted to get my head down and show everyone what a good batsman I was.” This isn’t an age-group final that Jonathan Trott is describing, or a second XI trial match, or his first-class debut. It’s his eighth birthday party.
“I was so intense,” he tells AOC. “The other kids were eating doughnuts, I was just worried about batting through. From the age of three I wanted to be a cricketer. The other kids wanted to be a pilot, or a fireman, or Superman. Not a cricketer!”
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It’s a small but revealing early example of the relentless drive and determination, fuelled by his sports-obsessed parents, which was to prove the foundation of Trott’s success; first as a prodigiously talented young batsman in Cape Town, then a prolific run-scorer for Warwickshire and, finally, the rock at No.3 in one of the most successful teams in England’s history.
The problem was, he never knew when to stop. As a kid a run of low scores would result in something approaching a family crisis. “Knowing my parents were so invested in my career was a mixed blessing,” he writes in his recently released autobiography Unguarded. “In most ways, it was brilliant. It meant they took my cricket seriously, they encouraged me and they were always on my side. But there were times it felt like a burden, times when I felt painfully aware of how important my success was to them. As if the only way that the family would be happy was if I scored runs.”
As a result he would work harder, train longer, hit more balls, to try and ensure he didn’t let himself or his family down. Aged 16, and pushing for selection in South Africa’s under 19s team, he made four ducks and a 2 in five innings and the frustration led to him head-butting a friend after an argument. His mum took him to a psychologist who tried in vain to tell him that cricket wasn’t life or death. “How could he understand?” he writes. “Cricket had already become the way in which I defined myself. It was my identity and purpose.”
Even when times were good, as they generally were for a young batsman regarded as a special talent, Trott was never satisfied. He describes it as a “self-sabotage mentality” and it was something that he would continue to battle in his professional career. When he scored 245 on his debut for Warwickshire’s second XI in 2002 he smashed his bat in anger, “furious at missing out on a triple century”. Later, ahead of the 2013 home Ashes series, his superb record against Australia became an albatross around his neck. “I was so desperate to reach 90 – the benchmark I had set per innings against Australia from previous encounters – that I found myself searching for scoring opportunities that weren’t there. I found myself looking at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘Only another 60 to get’.”
George Dobell, ESPNcricinfo correspondent and co-author of Unguarded, recalls meeting a single-minded man for whom life was about batting. “He was a pretty rough, unsophisticated fellow. He was the boy who batted. I spoke to him after he scored a century on debut against Sussex in 2003 and I remember trying to vaguely get to know him. ‘What do you like outside cricket?’ He would have a lot of answers for that now but at the time it was like, ‘Outside cricket?’ and he had this perplexed look on his face. One of his answers was ‘Meat’.
“But I remember him saying to me, ‘You should ask me about batting when I’m not scoring runs, not when I score runs’. That really stuck in my head. He used to talk about “the worms of doubt” that nibble away through his head and say little things that in retrospect, maybe even at the time, marked him out as someone quite a lot more fragile than you would think from the outside. And a lot more thoughtful than you would think on first impression.”
Trott has largely kept his counsel since leaving the 2013/14 Ashes tour with a stress-related condition, an illness he describes as “situation-based anxiety”.
He appeared on a Sky documentary in March 2014 in an attempt to explain his departure but an awkward interview with Ian Ward, in which he attracted criticism for using the words “nutcase” and “crazy”, led Michael Vaughan to write in his column for the Telegraph that he felt “conned we were told Jonathan Trott’s problems in Australia were a stress-related illness he had suffered for years”. Vaughan went on to claim that Trott’s exit was a result of his technical deficiencies against top-quality fast bowling.
While the majority were sympathetic to Trott, the narrative that he didn’t have the ticker to face Mitchell Johnson and had ‘done a runner’ did get some traction. Trott’s wife Abi is one of the secondary voices we hear from in Unguarded and she describes the impact. “The vitriol that was poured upon Jonathan in the days and weeks that followed was incredible. And this was a man who was struggling to cope anyway. He was devastated. He really was. And I was worried about him. It’s the lowest I’ve ever seen him. I didn’t think he could take any more hurt… It felt as if we were trapped in a cage while people threw stones at us. The media were the hunters and we were their prey. It was the most horrible experience of our lives.”
“When you’ve had time out of the game you just remember the good times, a lot of the bad times you forget about,” says Trott now. “They forget what players are going through. With regards to Michael [Vaughan], he never picked up the phone or asked me how things were going. It was always hearsay or third-hand information to sell papers or make himself more popular.”
Today’s media culture demands instant, hard-hitting opinions to satisfy a non-stop news cycle, with opinions on complex issues often condensed to 140 characters or fewer and blurted out with no more than a second’s thought. It’s a dangerous trend, particularly when it concerns issues such as mental health. Trott’s experience, and the testimony of those who were closest to him at his lowest ebb, should provide some food for thought.
Flower, Cook, Pietersen and Strauss – who each agreed to be interviewed at length for the book – all confirm the warning signs had been there for some time, most notably during the 2009/10 tour of South Africa and in the summer of 2013. Alastair Cook describes not stepping in when Trott was taking blow after blow in the net adjacent to him ahead of the 2013 Brisbane Test as one of the biggest regrets in his career. “He had the bowling machine set as fast as it would go and pitching short,” says Cook. “He must have been hit 20 times and he was being hit hard. It was horrible to watch… it was clear he was battling something more than his technique.”
Perhaps Trott’s critics had been fooled by the bulletproof persona that he had exuded. He had taken to Test cricket with ease, hitting an Ashes-clinching century on debut, driving the Aussies to distraction in the historic 2010/11 series and winning the ICC Cricketer of the Year award after only his second full season of international cricket. He had looked a man completely in control, technically and emotionally. From the outside looking in, Trott did not give the impression of someone prone to self-doubt and anxiety. Possibly this is why some struggled to accept the fact that by the Brisbane Test, Trott was a broken man who had nothing left to give.
Trott was brought up in a macho culture where he was taught not to let the cracks show; vulnerabilities would be exploited, your manhood questioned. It’s telling that when Trott’s frazzled mind led to him struggling against short-pitched bowling he says he felt as though he “was being questioned as a man”. The reaction of his brother – Kenny Jackson, a former first-class cricketer in South Africa – after his early departure from the 2013/14 Ashes tour is another example of that unforgiving environment. Trott idolised Jackson when he was growing up – “I felt like the bee’s knees to be his brother” – and he says that one of the key motivations behind the book was to try and explain to him exactly what he went through.
“I remember Skyping him when I got back,” says Trott, “and he was like, ‘What are you doing home? You’re not going to find out anything sitting around.’ I was like, ‘Thanks, at least I’ve got an ally in you!’ That’s how he is. He doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, I don’t think he knew what else to say. When in doubt he goes for the tough route.”
Unguarded is not just the story of Jonathan Trott, it is also the story of the rise and fall of an England team that reached great heights before imploding just as spectacularly. Trott’s Test career mirrors the life cycle of a group of players who claimed back the Ashes in 2009, twice retained them, won a Test series in India for the first time in 17 years and achieved their goal of becoming the No.1 Test side in the world.
In amongst the successes, there were some chastening times. Notably the whitewash in the UAE in 2012, the home series defeat to South Africa a few months later that led to Andrew Strauss’ retirement and the 2013 Champions Trophy final loss to India – a blow that hit Trott particularly hard and contributed to his unravelling in the months that followed.
He describes a poignant scene during the 2013 Brisbane Test which signalled the last rites of that team. Standing at slip, unable to concentrate, he turns to Matt Prior and says, “I’m done, mate”. Prior, who can’t buy a run and has a knackered Achilles, is also struggling badly. Meanwhile, Graeme Swann is bowling with a busted elbow and being marmalised. This was a team emotionally and physically spent, powerless to stop the onslaught of an Australian side who were delighting in the tables being turned after three successive Ashes defeats. Trott would fly home two days later, soon to be followed by Swann, and Prior played just six more Tests before a similarly limp exit. After all these three had given to English cricket, they deserved to step aside with a fanfare befitting their contribution. But their tired minds and bodies couldn’t muster the performances that warranted such a send-off.
This is by no means a hard luck story, though. While Kevin Pietersen’s autobiography, that chronicled much of the same period, could be accused of whitewashing some of the moments of joy to emphasise the moments of friction, Trott talks with real fondness about his teammates and the times they shared. He doesn’t shirk away from the flashpoints – he describes a particularly blazing on-field row he had with Prior and Swann at Dhaka in 2010 and acknowledges dressing room cliques had an undesirable effect at times – but these moments have clearly left a much less significant imprint on Trott’s brain than Pietersen’s.
“Yeah, you have times when guys are a bit moody and you have a bit of an argument or whatever, but you get on because you have a common goal, and that’s what I think that team had,” he says. “We had a lot of self-confident individuals but they all bought into knowing that if we got to No.1, there were a lot of rewards. Some wanted the money, some wanted the fame. I just wanted to see how good we could be. I love winning and I saw it as a chance to feed my addiction.
“Obviously I had a lot of ups and downs but I don’t think I’d change it. For me, cricket has always been a bit like life. You learn a lot from it, it teaches you things. It’s certainly taught me stuff. I’ve been very fortunate. I was there for one of the most exciting times for English cricket. I enjoyed being a part of that, just being associated with that.”
For a man who describes his identity as being that of a batsman, retirement will bring its own challenges. He has no desire to become a poster boy for mental health, although he says he would be open to sharing his experiences with fellow professionals if he was asked. Coaching is another avenue he may pursue but for the time being, alongside his playing commitments with Warwickshire, he is keen to do more media work, having already commentated on England’s series in the UAE last winter.
For someone who makes no secret of his distrust or distaste of the media, it seems a surprising call. Has he thought about what he is prepared to say and what he isn’t in his role as a pundit? Is there a line he won’t cross? “I’ll never, ever give uninformed information,” he says, immediately. “Never ever am I going to be in the media for my own gain – it will always be to give my informative views on the game. And I’ll always remember how hard cricket is. You’ve got to be quite sensitive about jumping in two-footed on a player who’s really down and knows his England career is probably going to be taken away from him. If people don’t like that, and I don’t get a job because of it, then fine, so be it. I’ll never change to be a slater.”