Fear of failure

Trescothick had hoped that the break might help him to recapture his old self, the cheerful, warm, loyal, considerate fellow popular amongst colleagues. It was not to be. And so he went home, before more harm could be done, writes Peter Roebuck.

Every sportsman will sympathise with Marcus Trescothick, an affable young man blessed with an ability that took him on a long journey towards places that lost their appeal as the years passed. Every cricketer understands the hidden vulnerability that reappeared as he sat in the dressing-room in Sydney, dismissed for a handful of runs, his technique exposed by raw pace, his nerves shattered, his desire to depart resurgent. Plenty of golfers have suffered from the yips, umpteen bowlers have frozen at the crease. Underneath the brave show, athletes are ordinary human beings.

A sports field is an unforgiving place. A man who walks on to the arena with half a heart or a distracted mind is already doomed. Despite the camaraderie, dressing-rooms can also become awkward, unintentionally hostile places. Woe betide the performer whose heart is crying or whose head is hurting. Only the strong survive. But strength can seep away like water through a crack.

Trescothick's retreat confirms that sportsmen are not demi-gods but humans, not machines but mortals. The miracle is not that one man collapses but that so many endure for so long.

Sportsmen, actors, singers set out in quiet arenas where their deeds draw only a smattering of applause from friends and relations. But a few, not so much the chosen as the fortunate, keep improving till they find themselves performing in vast amphitheatres calculated to intimidate the shy or uncertain. Not much changes in their minds, just that the crowds become larger and the noise louder and the pressure greater and then there can be no peace. Sometimes they must wonder how it all came about, and when it was they asked to be treated as public property. Not everyone wants to reach the top.

Sachin Tendulkar has lived amidst this all his adult life. Even now Indians do not fully appreciate the extraordinariness of their champion. Tendulkar has not merely survived for 17 years as a great batsman who has carried to the crease a hundred million hopes and a lump of wood. He has survived, even prospered, as a man. At one level cricket is a simple game of bat and ball. At another level it is an examination of the will.

At some point in the last few months Trescothick must have realised that he'd had enough, that he was exhausted, dispirited, going through the motions, living on borrowed time. Probably he did not want to admit it even to himself for great days lay ahead, an epic series, the sort that children dream about, especially those from country areas. How could a man turn his back on such sport? How could he look comrades in the eye? How could he live with himself?

Throughout Trescothick's greatest fear was that he'd be regarded as a failure. Everyone fights that battle. Sportsmen have fragile egos. Many need constant reassurance, runs on the board, wickets in the book, slaps on the back. They might not show it, might be called brash or cocky, but in quiet times the yearning returns, the compliment is sought. Even the mightiest champion knows that he treads a fine line.

Eventually Trescothick came to understand that his Ashes tour was bound to end badly. He had hoped that the break might help him to recapture his old self, the cheerful, warm, loyal, considerate fellow popular amongst colleagues. It was not to be. And so he went home, before more harm could be done, returning to the familiar, to hearth and home, and to the quietness he had left behind.