The Roar: Sex, drugs and cricket – coping with addiction

“Can you just rock and roll that?”

The advent of the decision review system has undoubtedly enhanced international cricket, not least by introducing us to this now trademark phrase. Its distinctiveness lies not only in the ease with which the words slide off the tongue but in the irony that the sport of cricket, burdened by a stiff and traditional stereotype, should ever be associated with such a dramatic turn of phrase.

Cricket is a sport of creased flannels, rigid breaks for afternoon tea and one in which the only way to elicit a decision from the arbiter is by politely asking them.

Its association with drugs, on a performance-enhancing level, is loose at best. Cricket’s most recent drug-related headlines involved a mix-up with a wife’s blood pressure medication (Pakistan’s leg-spinner Yasir Shah), a – probably – sloppy whereabouts violation (by the West Indies’ all-rounder Andre Russell) and an adverse finding that wasn’t (in the case of Sri Lanka’s much-maligned Kusal Perera).

Andre Russell celebrates a wicket for the Sydney Thunder

Compared to other sports, cricket leans more on skill than physical exertion; a steadily increased emphasis on fitness over the past decade may change the infrequency of performance-enhancing drug violations, but currently, it is a relatively minor blight.

Recreational drugs, on the other hand, do crop up on the official radar, and more frequently still in unofficial gossip. Stories of habitual cocaine use, smoking cannabis and over-indulgence in alcohol feature regularly.

Cricket’s association with recreational drugs runs far stronger than we might like to think. But why? One hypothesis is that the game itself bears the very hallmarks of an addictive drug.

In sports measured against the clock, an athlete may complete their feat a little faster on some days, a little slower on others, but rarely will they produce a performance so anomalous that they will have deemed it a total failure or a total success.

Even most other ball sports are invasive team games with negligible highs and lows. Successfully execute a tackle, and a player might experience a mild glowing feeling, lose the ball and frustration ensues. Score a goal and the athlete’s emotions will peak further, concede and it’s the opposite.

These emotions, however, will always stay within a relatively small range, never venturing far from the standard, a player’s ‘average’ game.

Contrast that with cricket, however, and the agony of a first-ball duck compared to the ecstasy of a century are polar opposites. The peaks and troughs of cricket’s emotional rollercoaster fluctuate more violently than a Melbourne weather vane.

Rarely does a cricketer walk off the pitch satisfied that they have performed to par – more likely a total failure or an unmitigated success. And of these two emotions, cricketers are far more accustomed to failure, a feature unique to the sport.

It’s those rare successes, however, and the memories of those occasions, that rope us back in each time. That thirsty quest for success mirrors the heroin addict’s search for the elusive high and the reason they will endure so many bad trips to find it.

For an individual, this perpetual struggle is a hallmark of the game at every level, from fourth-grade weekender to Test veteran. Only rarely will cricket unearth such talent that they never experience such contrasting emotions, to some degree at least, as a constant throughout their career.

When it does, that career is often a short one. It was said of Jack Iverson, the great Australian mystery bowler who burst onto the scene in the 1950s, that his rise was so meteoric that he never truly experienced that failure.

His career spanned just five Tests, and despite his success, he was widely deemed a naïve cricketer without the resilience to persevere in the long-run, having never had to overcome adversity to achieve what he did.

On a wider level, cricket’s rollercoaster applies to team performance too. That the BBL’s bottom four currently contains three of last year’s semi-finalists is testament to the unpredictability of the sport.

The fortunes of Australia’s Test team in 2016 oscillate in an unprecedented manner. From the darkest depths of a home series thumping by South Africa, Australia’s widely perceived annus horribilis was quickly atoned for by making short work of the touring Pakistanis.

Australian captain Steve Smith leaves the field

The turnaround proved so pronounced that the subsequent sight of Australia’s cricketers, huddled in a group at the wicket in the early hours of the morning, beers in hand and still in their match-worn whites, was a considered a sure-fire sign that normal service had resumed.

It hadn’t, and it won’t, because normal service rarely exists in a sport such as this.

The psychological highs and lows of the game lend themselves to psychological battles off the pitch too. The list of professionals who have publicly lived with depression, or similar, both before and during their careers, is a long one.

Some assert this is as a result of cricket, compared to other sports, having far better and more transparent support mechanisms in play. This may be true, but the large psychological element, coupled with high individual pressure, the constant battle with failure and long periods away from home have long been recognised as a fertile environment for mental illness.

From one perspective, we are fools for persevering with a game that gives so much grief – for it is a love-hate relationship like no other. Perhaps it is true too that no-one can really love cricket unless they have gone through severe bouts of loathing the game. While this characteristic may lend itself to some adverse effects, it brings with it many upsides too.

Learning to overcome failure in a controlled, sporting environment has historically been considered the perfect grounding for dealing with life’s wider challenges, especially so in war.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s second President who also held the same post for the Pakistan Cricket Board, proposed that, “When war is not on, the best place for the promotion of team spirit is the sports field.”

Vitaï Lampada, Henry Newbolt’s famous poem, is perhaps best known for its closing line, “Play up! play up! and play the game!”, asserting that the cricket pitch was the perfect preparation for a soldier’s selfless commitment to duty.

The recently-retired Indian captain MS Dhoni has long-standing links to the Indian army and has pledged to serve once quitting the game – whether he will, and whether successfully, will be keenly observed.

The sport’s relationship with drugs, psychology and failure is a deep one; as long as it continues to deliver in both agony and ecstasy, it will undoubtedly ensure a lasting future for cricket.

Those that love it often hate it in equal measure, coupling well with human fallibility – an inextricable link.

As for the sex part, answers on a postcard, please.

• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 6 January 2017. To access the original, please click here.

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