England wicket-keeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow's father David Bairstow was the last Test cricketer to commit suicide. That was way back in 1998. Before him there were 19 other Test cricketers who killed themselves. Strangely they were all from non-Asian nations (England 7, South Africa 7, Australia 4 and New Zealand 2). Each such unnatural death shook not only the society in which they lived but world-wide cricketing community to its very core.
More recently, in 2010, South African fast bowler Andre Nel attempted to take his own life. That attempt notwithstanding, there has not been a suicide by a Test cricketer for the past 21 years and this is credited to a positively changing environment.
The widely-held belief is that support systems available to modern cricketers have improved substantially since the days of the unfortunate David Bairstow. Current and recently retired cricketers in England, Australia and New Zealand are provided psychological support and these seem to be having a telling impact.
One school of thought credits the dramatic boost to fortunes of cricketers for the decline in player suicides. It holds that rising economical gains have attracted a number of focused and highly driven personalities who, in turn, are being thoroughly prepared both mentally and physically for the demands of the sport.
Besides, there is a plethora of high-paying opportunities opening up around the game for retiring and retired cricketers. These have ensured that they have something to look forward to beyond the glitz and glamour of their playing days.
These eco-system changes notwithstanding, the recent mental turmoil within Australian cricketer Glenn Maxwell is a clear indication that there is more to the game than just a contest between bat and ball.
Maxwell had made a 28-ball 62 in the first T20I against Sri Lanka but coach Justin Langer said that despite his excellent on-field performances he could tell something was wrong with the cricketer.
He sat down to talk to him and later Dr. Michael Lloyd, Australian team psychologist said the mentally-stressed Maxwell would spend time away from the game. He said the player was proactive in identifying the issues and engaging with support staff.
"In one way it was very good for him, to have the courage to do that. Behind the mask of a great entertainer, great talent and great team-man and everything we see publicly, the guy's human and was hurting a bit," said Langer, himself a highly successful former Australian opening batsman.
Maxwell's troubled break from the game brought back focus on mental issues dogging even the most successful cricketers.
Jonathan Trott of England, a hero of three Ashes triumphs and part of the England squad that won a rare series in India, returned home after the first Test of the Ashes series in 2013 due to stress related illness.
In his book 'Just Briefly' he said that he considered driving his car into the Thames or crashing it into a tree. That seemed to be the way to get out of the ordeal, he had written.
Trott said that his increasing problem with handling short-pitched deliveries was one of the major causes of his troubles. Every time he ducked below a bouncer he felt "I was being questioned as a man. I felt my dignity was being stripped away with every short ball I ducked or parried. It was degrading."
Trott also explained how constant travelling as an international cricketer deeply affected him: "One of the hardest parts of being an international cricketer is living out of hotels for most of the year.
"I remember getting home and looking for my hotel room key. 'Oh, I need house keys.' I also remember coming down at home and wondering why the breakfast buffet wasn't out!"
Trott was England's run-making ace. Prior to the Australian tour he used to let go balls delivered at 95kmph in the nets and have them hit his body. Trott said he ignored the pain to make himself think, 'I must work harder' to win.
However, when England toured Australia at the end of 2013, Trott's mind was not in a fit state to face a fiery Mitchell Johnson-led pace attack.
"I was just in tears on the field. I almost felt I blacked out as I walked off. I felt a banging going on in my head," he said.
Another member of that touring party, Graeme Swann could not take the stress either and quit the game when England were down 3-0. They were crushed 5-0 in that series. The other spinner Monty Panesar had a lot more mental issues. He suffered paranoid voices in his head, had depression and schizophrenia.
"I became paranoid. I thought the fielders and umpires were against me and I got lower and lower. I started to think the fans were laughing at me," he was quoted as saying.
In August 2013, Panesar got so drunk at a nightclub that he urinated on the bouncers at 4 AM after they ejected him for hassling women. Many other bowlers, Steve Harmison, Steve Finn, Andrew Flintoff also struggled with their state of mind.
Harmison once the world's number one bowler suffered clinical depression during the tour of South Africa in 2004. He said that he had wished he had held a 9-to-5 office job rather than being a cricketer. Flintoff who excelled in England's Ashes win in 2005 was driven to alcoholism and depression after that win.
"I was captain of England and financially successful. Yet instead of walking out confidently to face Australia in one of the world's biggest sporting events, I didn't want to get out of bed, never mind face people," he'd said.
Former New Zealand great, the late Martin Crowe who had successfully battled mental depression early in his career believed "it was mainly the batsmen that suffered. Failure is more acute. If you have a precondition, then batting will only bring it out and expose it. It's becoming acceptable to admit it now. I would imagine it has always been there, now it is out in the open more."
However, in many cases bowlers too had issues. Andre Nel for instance, said that the person with behavioural issues on-field was not him but his alter-ego, a German guy called Gunther.
"It's not me. It's my second personality, Gunther. He lives in the mountains and doesn't get enough oxygen to the brain and that makes him crazy," he said when asked about his on-field antics.
In India too there have been cricketers who could have contributed a lot more to the game if they had had timely help from trained mentors. Vinod Kambli, Sadanand Vishwanath, L Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh, among others, never really attained their true potential simply because they did not have a system that could protect and help them when they most needed it.
Maninder Singh gave an insightful interview to Cricket Monthly where he said that he had to put up a brave front although he was gone inside. "I was scared if I went to a psychologist people would write in newspapers," he said.
But by and large there may be something to say about Indian, Paksitani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan cricketers being among people all the time. The friends, family and relatives ensure that they live in an interactive society that is so different from the individualistic living in some other countries. The support that Indian cricketers get from family and society is immeasurable. But it is the few that do not have this sort of support who need professional help and protection.
Unlike in England where the gloomy weather of winter, when there is no sun for six months or more, could in itself be depressing, India has just the weather to encourage year-round outdoor activity and interaction.
Besides, there is something or the other to keep most India's current and former cricketers engaged and feel wanted.
Nevertheless, the Maxwell case might well be the trigger that should get Sourav Ganguly and BCCI to set in motion a system that would guide, mentor and support our cricketers. There may be more to the issues dogging some of them than just money. Their cry for help may be a silent one. But it needs to be heard.