The home and away conundrum in cricket
By H Natarajan
The demand on today’s top international cricketers to spend extensive time away from their families – arguably more than any other sports - is playing havoc in their personal lives. Once romantic notions gives way to harsh realities of life, ‘cricket widows’ are left holding their babies, literally and figuratively, in the absence of their globe-trotting husbands.
In a place like India, domestic help is at hand at a very affordable price as also support system in the form of parents and in-laws. But in most other countries that’s not the case. Even affluent couples are forced to do themselves chores like cleaning the house, doing the laundry, washing the car, watering the garden, buying grocery, ferrying the children to and from school, etc. Dependence on parents and in-laws are also not generally sort nor easily given in societies where private space has a different connotation than in India. The absence of the husband in such countries forces the lady of the house to bear the entire load single handedly.
Not many realise the kind of sacrifices cricket expects of top international players. Long periods away from home also means missing joyous occasions like wedding anniversaries, children and spouse’s birthdays, parents’ day at school and family gatherings - occasions most of us take for granted. The circumstantial void places enormous strain on relationships.
Problems of a general nature have to be addressed in a humane and sensitive manner as it has a bearing on performances. Progressive cricket boards like that of Australia, England and South Africa have defined their own guidelines in not only allowing the cricketers to spend time with their partners (wives/girlfriends) and children for a part of the tour but also foot a good percentage of their travel and board.
The presence of wives and children has a flip side. They become easy targets in attributing reversal of fortunes as a Cricket Australia sub committee’s found out after the team’s defeat in the recent Ashes series. Such explanations are very simplistic. Victoria Beckham, on the other hand, was blamed for her husband’s travails in the Euro 2004 because of her refusal to shift base to Spain to be with her husband.
One has never heard blame attributed to wives of government heads when a summit meeting fails. In fact, it’s the absence of the wife that would raise media curiosity.
The presence of wife and children can actually make a player more cheerful, less stressed and thereby act as positive factors, but the exact opposite could also be true for another player. It’s best left for the individual to decide what’s good for him while ensuring that he adheres to the non-negotiables charted out by the team management.
It’s not just overseas tours that keep top cricketers away for long stretches of time from their families, it’s also the international matches in their own country, domestic championships, training camps, medical visits for wear and tear, contractual obligations to personal and team sponsors to make personal appearances, commercial shoots, award ceremonies, felicitations, openings etc. It may not be a surprise if a cricketer spends less than two months in his own home.
The life span of a sportperson is brief and he has to maximise his earnings in that time to safeguard the future of his family. But in doing that, some aspects of his personal life takes a beating. Under the circumstances, players have succumbed to alluring temptations. That’s understandable even if not acceptable. And when these indiscretions become public, the wife at home who has been sacrificing a lot – including the joys of married life – feels very cheated. This could widen the divide between the player and the wife. Sometimes, irrevocably.
Graham Thorpe’s failed marriage is symptomatic of the malaise afflicting modern cricket. In his autobiography, Rising From The Ashes, Thorpe documents his trials and tribulations that tormented his life. He air-dashed home from England’s 2001 tour of India when his wife Nicky decided that she had enough of life in the gilded cage and decided to leave her husband for a new life with another man. Thorpe became suicidal sought refuge in alcohol and anti-depressants as he contemplated the loss of his wife, his children and a house that he said had become an “open prison”. His commitment to England also suffered frequently because of the tensions at home.
Thorpe may have exacerbated the situation by his own (confessed) infidelity on England tour’s of New Zealand in 1997, but to blame either Thorpe or his wife mindlessly would be a failure to recognise the negative impact cricket is placing on the modern cricketer and his family. Thorpe could not salvage his marriage nor could he optimise his cricketing brilliance. His career came to a sudden and sad end.
The disintegration of Thorpe’s marriage is part of a serial tragedy. Three of Thorpe’s England’s mates, Darren Gough, Mark Butcher and Dominic Cork, also found their marriages breaking up. In another part of the world, Sanath Jayasuriya sought divorce from his air-hostess wife on grounds of “malicious desertion” - merely six months after a very high-profile wedding attended by the who’s who of Sri Lanka, including President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Then there is Graham Gooch, Michael Slater….cricket’s Splitsville list reads long – and that includes Indians, some whose parting of ways are well publicised, while others escaping that public ordeal.
Finally, it’s the couple that has to decide if it’s worth the risk and sacrifices. Absence can make the heart grow fonder or it can have an exactly opposite effect with the lack of emotional nourishment causing cracks that eventually leads to a divide. It’s purely an individual thing.
Nobody has had the heart to hear from children of these cricketers their inner feelings, but it would have saddened them, no doubt, that their fathers are never present at school functions while their rest of their friends have both parents cheering them. Cricketers, too, may just be hoping that somewhere down the life their children don’t ask: “Dad, where were you when I was growing up?” That would be devastating.
Sunil Gavaskar was refused permission by the Board of Control for Cricket in India to make a fleeting visit from New Zealand to see his new born child in 1976. Gavaskar was sidelined with injury during the third Test and was out of action for the remaining part of the New Zealand tour. The team was scheduled to fly directly to the West Indies where the first Test was about fortnight later, yet the BCCI said no to Gavaskar’s request to return back home for a quick visit to see his new born and then re-join the tour. It was well over two months before the great man saw Rohan for the first time.
Glenn McGrath, a devoted husband, was serving Australia while his wife was fighting cancer back home. Sachin Tendulkar was doing duty in England in the 1999 World Cup when he lost his father. He could not even be long with his mom and comfort her in the most traumatic phase of her life as the call of national duty beckoned him. Cricketers cannot easily detach from serving the nation the way officers can by applying for a paid leave. Special cases deserve special treatment.
Cricket commitments are so chock-a-block that cricketers are discovering new ways to overcome the problems. Mahela Jayawardene skipped the Pune game of the recent ODI series to get married and rush back from the next one-dayer. Nasser Hussain made arrangement in Perth for his wife Karen and kid so that he could be around when his wife delivered their second child during England’s 2002-03 tour of Australia – the baby induced to fit with his dad’s cricketing schedule! Steve Waugh, named “Australian Father of the Year” earlier in 2005, made London the temporary base for his family to be in proximity with his pregnant wife Lynette and two children during the 2001 Ashes tour.
It’s time the role of the family in a cricketer’s international career is given due importance. It was really nice to see the wives and children of English cricketers join in the public celebrations that followed the Ashes-winning heroics. But much more needs to be done if more marriages in cricket don’t end in the divorce court.