MENTAL Health Awareness Week was the perfect time for former Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith to speak about the mental challenges of professional cricket – and the vital work done by the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) to help players deal with them.
Professional cricket is a high-pressure environment and the pressure is highest of all when you play for a big club in big games.
Smith has been there and done that. As a buccaneering all-rounder able to turn matches with bat or ball, he was a crucial member of the all-conquering Warwickshire team of the mid-1990s and has the silverware to prove it.
His considerable natural talent was a great asset to the team at a time of high achievement and high pressure. There were also tougher times, though, for Smith, both during and following his playing career – and during those times he was deeply grateful to have an increasingly robust pillar of support.
Since the nineties, the Professional Cricketers’ Association has developed into a bedrock of support for current and former cricketers – a bedrock which players of earlier generations had to cope without.
“The PCA has been brilliant to me on numerous occasions over the years, both in terms of helping me personally and advising me on how I can help others,” said Smith.
“During my playing days there wasn’t really too much support around in the cricket world beyond your mates in the dressing room and sometimes you need to be out of that bubble. Bob Woolmer was great but all the best conversations I had with him were away from Edgbaston.
“I often looked towards my mates outside cricket. You need that. As a group of players, we were very good at putting our cards on the table and speaking frankly in the dressing room.
“But, however well you get on with your team-mates – and I’ve never known a team spirit like we had in the 90s – it is important to have someone to talk to beyond them.
“Cricket is a great life but it is also a high-pressure business with players under constant scrutiny and needing to perform all the time and no cricketer can perform well all the time, it just doesn’t happen, so there are times when you need that sounding board.
“These days players have access to that sort of support thanks to the PCA. They do so much work in so many ways to help and advise current and ex-players. Most of it nobody ever hears about, which is the way it should be, of course.
“For those players with abundant natural ability there is also an added pressure to ‘make the most of it’.
“It is always interesting to hear people accuse others of wasting their talent. Who is to judge what is a waste? It’s that person’s talent – it’s up to them, alone, how to wield it!
“My autobiography was called ‘Wasted?’ – with a question mark. A lot of people overlook that question mark. People have said I wasted my talent but I look back with only pride and pleasure at what we achieved.
“Ever since the age of nine, when I first met Bob Willis when he knocked on our front door and came to take KD out for a drink, Warwickshire was the club I wanted to play for. Even though it was a team miles away, I loved the Bears and bought into them lock, stock and barrel.
“So that I did play for the club for so long and was part of such great times with such great people – what’s to regret?
“We played hard, won a lot of games and enjoyed ourselves. There was a lot of fun to be had and that was part and parcel of dealing with the pressure.
“My main thought looking back on that time was ‘how did I manage it?’ as there was so much cricket and travelling and then, especially as we were so successful, a lot of functions to attend. But it was a lot of fun!”
Smith was talking to Brian Halford.