Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

ONE of the quickest and most effective ways of drawing a gasp from a cricket loving audience is to tell them that, as a profession, the game has a mid-or post-career suicide rate amongst the top five anywhere in the world.

The armed services and fire departments are pretty much top of the list. All that killing, maiming and death, all that bereavement and loss. A questionable purpose at the end of it all, too. What was I thinking? Was it all worth it?

Professional golfers have a saying about the thousands of 30-plus journeymen who live from hand to mouth, year after year, driving thousands of kilometres to pre-qualifying events, sleeping on friends’ sofas, hoping for that life-changing, breakthrough week. They call it "living the dream".

John Daly’s 1991 Major victory at the US PGA was a dream so powerful it has sustained not only golfers but many other sportsmen for more than two decades. Nick Price dropped out of the tournament at 24 hours notice when his wife went into labour. PGA officials contacted the first eight standby players but none could get there. Daly was the final alternative. He drove through the night to get there — and won.

There’s a middle ground for golfers between living the dream and giving up altogether. They can become teaching professionals for a while, a club pro and even regather their resources for a final fling at various senior tours once they have reached 50. (And there are even more "dream come true" stories among the old guys as there on the regular tour.)

For cricketers, however, once the dream has gone, it’s snuffed out completely — with a bucket of cold reality thrown over it just to be sure. It’s one thing watching the great players of the game deciding when to call it a day, but quite another for those 30-year-olds for whom a successful career was denied by injury, form, fickle selectors and bad luck. Or they just weren’t good enough.

Accepting responsibility for one’s own fate is a golden target for coaches of players in every age group. Excuses serve no purpose other than self-delusion.

One suspected that JP Duminy had learnt that lesson when he was "caught" off a bouncer which obviously hit his helmet in his first Test innings. "I was beaten for pace," was all he said afterwards.

Players associations are often misunderstood and almost always underappreciated by those who follow the game rather than play it. They are there for every player, but less for the likes of Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, and more for the players whose provincial contracts aren’t renewed after a decade of loyal service from teenage years. Players for whom the real world is even more scary than for those of us trying to make our way in it.

I have been in the presence of young cricketers demanding car and phone upgrades, arrogantly commanding agents to do this and that. I even heard one young man say to an anxious parent: "I don’t need you any more." And far worse things have been said and done by senior, exalted players. I’ve seen the worst of professional cricketers, and it’s ugly.

But for every one of them, there are many honest, hard-working, unassuming players struggling with as many demons off the field as on it, players who not only need help and guidance, but deserve it.

All professional sports are the same, of course, but cricket differs in two ways: the amount of time spent away from home and the rarity of personal "success". If the benchmark is 50 for batsmen and five for bowlers, then even good cricketers are destined to "fail" as often as eight times out of 10.

Last week, long-serving Australian Cricketers Association CE Paul Marsh was poached by the Aussie Rules Players Association. He is brilliant at his job, and also happened to be president of the Federation of International Cricketers Associations (Fica).

Tony Irish is CE of the South African Cricket Association, but many of the world’s players would like him to take over at Fica. The global players will be in good hands if he does, but South Africa’s players will lose out. They will be hoping that, like Marsh, he is able to do both jobs.