Ken Barrington pushes a ball past Hanumant Singh at short leg

Ken Barrington on his way to 93 against India in 1967, a season in which he made over 2000 first-class runs at nearly 70

© PA Photos/Getty Images

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Ken Barrington's demons

Forty years before Marcus Trescothick's seminal book on the subject, a well-loved England batsman wrote about dealing with anxiety and depression during his career

Gideon Haigh  |  

Few cricketers have occasioned such admiration and affection as Ken Barrington. He was England's brave, stoic batting bulwark of the 1960s; he was their warm, paternal coaching counsellor of the 1970s; he was the comrade of Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey and Fred Trueman, the mentor to Graham Gooch, David Gower and Mike Gatting, the epitome of calm-browed, jut-jawed professional dedication. Even his figures radiate a satisfying solidity: 20 Test hundreds, an average of 50 at home and almost 70 away.

Because nobody condenses so easily to a set of clichés, however stirring, however homely, it goes without saying that there was another Barrington. And the significant thing about this Barrington is not mysterious and elusive but perfectly frank and peculiarly modern. Cricket's lexicon has recently incorporated the phrase "mental-health break", viz those taken lately by players such as Moises Henriques and Glenn Maxwell. Yet they were following a precedent set 54 years ago by a great cricketer of whom they may not even have heard.

On his retirement last year, Marcus Trescothick was acclaimed as not just a distinguished batsman but as one who changed cricket attitudes, by describing in detail in his autobiography, Coming Back to Me, the mental travails that had cut short his international cricketer. "It's no exaggeration to suggest Trescothick saved lives," wrote George Dobell of this parish. "And it's no exaggeration to suggest he changed his sport - and probably wider society - in a way very few people manage."

Yet there are two parts to a successful communication: a willing messenger and a receptive audience. Trescothick's was a story that cricket was, in the main, ready to hear. Forty years earlier Barrington had put his name to a book that told a very similar tale but that was largely ignored and is now completely forgotten. Were you browsing the cricket shelves of a second-hand bookstore, Barrington's Playing It Straight (1968) would not stand out. The cover photograph is blurry and dull: Barrington, bat beneath his arm, is pulling on his gloves and giving his craggy smile. Open it, however, and the words spill out: "agony", "terrible state", "inner torment", "dreadful haze", and, at its worst, a feeling of "absolutely nothing" - the null state of the benighted depressive.

Readers who identified Barrington with a particular kind of professional flintiness must have been taken aback to learn that as the 1966 first-class season began, he felt "on the brink of a nervous breakdown

It is an ambivalent confessional, Barrington at times almost apologetic. He offers exogenous explanations like "an overdose of cricket"; he avoids disturbing words like "depression" and "mental illness" in favour of paler formulations like "nervous tension" and "nervous stress". He hastens to reassure readers that he is really quite ordinary, isn't seeking sympathy or languishing in self-pity: "Before we go any further I'd better tell you a bit about myself as a person. If I don't, some of you might write me off as a crank, with all this tension about nervous tension and all that!" It is the book of a strong and brave man confused by weakness and vulnerability.

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The period Playing It Straight describes begins with Barrington at his professional peak. Nineteen-sixty-four was his benefit season for Surrey; it was the summer he made his first Test home hundred, an epic 256 at Old Trafford against Australia; it was the summer he realised, if only in hindsight, that he was "heading for a crack-up". The moment that comes back to him was in the season's penultimate fixture, his benefit match against Yorkshire at The Oval, where he was caught low at short leg by his old England pal Trueman. "Did you catch it, Fred?" he asked, in the spirit of professional collegiality. "Aye, I caught it, lad, bad luck," replied Trueman.

This was Saturday; on Monday morning, a photographer came to Barrington with what seemed a tell-tale image, showing Trueman sprawling, ball just above the ground, hands nowhere near it. It is reproduced in Playing It Straight with a caption still arguing the point four years later: "Fred still honestly believes he caught it. The enlarged photograph supports my view that he believes wrong."

At the time, evidently Barrington was furious. As he reports, he stormed into the Yorkshire dressing room with the photograph and remonstrated fiercely with Trueman and his captain Brian Close, using language that would have "embarrassed a clergyman". When Trueman defended himself, he was angrier still: Barrington left "blazing mad" after they exchanged "hot words".

Len Hutton (first from left), Don Bradman and Ken Barrington at a charity event in London in 1974

Len Hutton (first from left), Don Bradman and Ken Barrington at a charity event in London in 1974 © PA Photos/Getty Images

More significant, however, was the aftermath. On Tuesday morning, Barrington woke up "feeling dreadful, whacked, with no go in my legs and no life in my mind", with the result that he withdrew from his own benefit match - a quite extraordinary step, especially given that he was captain, for which the public explanation was a "chill". Barrington's doctor ascribed his reaction to exhaustion, and Barrington and his wife, Ann, adjourned to Saltdean for a week's break. But looking back, Barrington acknowledged that his reaction was "obviously a warning" of an underlying condition - a warning he did not heed.

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Yet there was no particular reason for Barrington to understand anything as a warning. He was the son of a private soldier, who grew up first in a barracks, then in a household of nine; he left school at 14 to apprentice as a mechanic, and then did his national service. Taking advantage of a job as a junior groundsman at Reading CC, he built a technique to succeed at higher levels, and worked his way into the all-conquering Surrey teams of the 1950s.

Professional cricket was then more precarious. Contracts covered summers only: in winter Barrington worked variously for British Rail, with an accounting firm, selling carpets and perfume. Opportunities were also sharply limited: Barrington failed in his first two Tests, in 1955, and did not play again for four years. An enterprising, even expansive cricketer in his young days, he returned to the colours a more resilient, less adventurous batsman, determined never to lose his place again. The game itself was struggling for relevance amid social change, under the gaze of a more competitive and intrusive media. And in the year following Barrington's tell-tale interlude at The Oval, he was uncharacteristically involved in three significant controversies that affected him deeply. "I'm not by nature a controversial chap at all; certainly not a 'rebel' type," he noted. "Being a serious professional and, I hope, one with a few principles, I'd found myself embroiled in 'incidents' which were splashed all over the cricketing world's Press, Radio and Television."

The first involved the West Indian pace bowler Charlie Griffith. "It wasn't that we suspected Charlie of chucking," said Trueman. "We knew." When players complained, however, authorities, as ever, prevaricated. Barrington was the first to make his discontent publicly known, by declining to play in September 1964 fixtures between England XIs, led by Ted Dexter and Trevor Bailey, and a West Indian XI, led by Frank Worrell and including Griffith. Barrington was not naïve about the significance of this: indeed, he received a fee from the Daily Mail for telling the story of his withdrawal to its correspondent Alex Bannister. But he was not prepared when the paper "made quite a splash about it": "When Ann and I came in one evening the phone was ringing - and it kept ringing until past midnight. We didn't answer it and, with two reporters hovering sinisterly outside, we plunged every light in the house to kid them we were either out or asleep."

"There was only one sensible thing to do: consult my doctor. 'What you need is a holiday,' he said. Like a mug I didn't take one. I wanted to get through the season without chickening out - and I set out to do so with the help of nerve tablets" Barrington on using medication to deal with his anxiety and depression

Given that the decision followed so soon on the heels of Barrington's upset in his benefit match, it's tempting to draw a connection between the two - that both arose from a sense of injustice heightened by other pains. It was not like Barrington to take the lead on a form of public protest. Yet his biographer, Mark Peel, says that Barrington's doubts seemed to harden quickly "from strong suspicion to complete obsession, bordering on paranoia", and that in the dispute "personal aspects became barely separable from the professional". In his pioneering study of the creative mind, Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice (1965), the psychiatrist Anthony Storr described an instinct developed by some depressives to "seek out opponents in the external world". As Storr put it: "It is a great relief to find an enemy on whom it is justifiable to lavish wrath." Perhaps Griffith was Barrington's.

In that winter's Cape Town Test, Barrington was involved in a stir that by modern lights seems bizarre. The series had been characterised by poor home umpiring, and a growing bitterness among the touring Englishmen about the resistance of the South Africans, notably Eddie Barlow, to "walking". Barrington had scored 49 at Newlands when he was given not out by umpire John Warner after a palpable nick to the keeper. Recalled Barrington: "I felt I just couldn't stay there - it was a matter of principle and sportsmanship - so I walked off towards the pavilion." But his decision divided critics: some thought it the acme of sportsmanship; others deplored its seeming ostentation. Barrington himself admitted a conglomeration of emotions: "I got terribly involved in the rights and wrongs of walking and the moment I saw Warner wasn't going to give me out the 'dos' and 'don'ts' seemed to flood into my mind." It was Barrington, perhaps, submitting himself to the justice he had felt lacking elsewhere.

He scarcely needed the mercy of umpires: he made 508 runs in 101.60 in the five Tests. But on returning to England, he fell into a strange batting funk. The proximate cause was the game's increasing masochism about scoring rates. Interviewed by the Daily Express' Crawford White before a three-Test series against New Zealand, he was drawn into pledging more attacking batsmanship. "For me, careful cricket is now OUT," White quoted Barrington as saying. "This year I'm prepared to give it a go with every shot in the book."

Barrington quickly felt overwhelmed by the undertaking: "Once I felt committed I also felt worried. Perhaps I'm a fool, but I felt morally bound to live up to my words. Of course, my most foolish action was making the promise in the first place." Barrington's form fell quietly apart: he went 13 Championship innings without a fifty. Picked to play for England at Edgbaston, he prepared with long sessions of penitential nets and anxious recourse to familiar superstitions: an old cap, an old bat, a familiar spot in the dressing room. On the drive to Birmingham, however, it rained. Barrington blew a tyre, got lost, and arrived too late to secure his favourite hook and locker. "So began the worst, unhappiest innings of my life," Barrington recalled: 137 in 437 minutes.

There were mitigations. The bowling was accurate, the weather bitterly cold, the pitch slow and crumbling. But it felt as excruciatingly self-preserving as it looked. "It was real inner torment, I can tell you," Barrington recalled. "I craved desperately for ones and twos which never came. Once I was so annoyed with myself that I threw my bat to the ground." The phrases he uses in Playing it Straight are expressive - "terrible", "inner battle", "sheer agony", "ghastly lowlights" and finally "very depressed". They go beyond how one would normally describe batting and into the realm of sensation.

Barrington bats in the nets in Adelaide, 1962-63

Barrington bats in the nets in Adelaide, 1962-63 © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Making it worse was an audience afterwards with England's chairman of selectors, Doug Insole, who upbraided Barrington for what he construed as self-centredness. Barrington quotes Insole at morbid length: "Ken, I can't say we're very happy about your knock these last two days. Against New Zealand particularly we're expected to show the way in attractive cricket… I can only say that to me and the other selectors it appeared as though all you wanted was a hundred - which looks very selfish." Though England won the Test by nine wickets, he was, without further word, omitted from the team for the second Test. He learned about the decision from reporters while playing in a benefit match in Coventry - a suitable location.

What worsened Barrington's sense of failure was being criticised not just as a cricketer but as a man. The execrations of the press included a moral judgement. White's Express colleague Keith Miller opined: "Barrington set the cricket clock back to the dark ages. His innings was a selfish exhibition, the worst I have ever seen in this respect. A painful crowd killer and the stuff that is emptying the cricket grounds of England." Cricket's great panjandrum, EW Swanton, praised Insole's panel in the Daily Telegraph: "The selectors could not have been provided with a clearer challenge to their authority, and their moral courage should be applauded without reserve." In the Times, John Woodcock stated: "Barrington's omission is a warning to all who are tempted to put themselves before the needs of a situation." The condemnation ate away at Barrington. "This seemed to contradict everything I'd tried to be in cricket," he recalled. "It branded me as a naughty boy, a rebel… To have been dropped would have been bearable; being 'disciplined' stung like a lash… I felt on the floor.'"

The suspension was temporary: Barrington was recalled for the third Test, at Headingley. It was no relief; in some senses, it made things worse. On his return, he scored 163 in five and a half hours, which made it appear that the experience of "discipline" had been salutary. In fact, said Barrington, "the disciplining had, if anything, the effect of making me even more apprehensive than usual". And that apprehension did not fade.

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A scroll through Barrington's statistics on Cricket Archive is a counter to the presumption that we live in a period uniquely glutted with cricket. In the seven peak years from his career from the start of 1959, Barrington played 274 first-class matches, including six long winter tours, visiting every Test nation and Ceylon as well. No country saw better of him than Australia, where he made 2397 runs at 77, and gained a generous following. A young autograph hunter once came to his Australian contemporary Ken Mackay and asked: "Mr Mackay, will you please sign ten times? I can get a Ken Barrington for ten Ken Mackays."

By the time Barrington returned from his second Ashes tour, however, he was, at 35, feeling the toll of the years. "Normally I'd have been looking forward to the home season for Surrey, but now things were different," he recalled. "For the first time in my life I didn't really want to play." He also knew that he had to, with all the internal conflict this entailed. It precipitated a kind of existential crisis.

What worsened Barrington's sense of failure was being criticised not just as a cricketer but as a man. The execrations of the press included a moral judgement

Playing It Straight was ghosted not by a member of the cricket press but by a journalist of the cricketer's acquaintance: Phil Pilley, then editor of World Sports, the magazine of the British Olympic Committee. Unusually, there is a contributors' note, in which Pilley seeks to vouch for the book's voice: "Playing It Straight has been written by me after goodness knows how many conversations with him. Ken did the talking; I recorded it verbatim and transcribed it in this book… What follows is his story." It appears to anticipate the challenge of authorial ventriloquism - and not without reason. Readers who identified Barrington with a particular kind of professional flintiness must have been taken aback to learn that as the 1966 first-class season began in typically inclement weather, Barrington felt "on the brink of a nervous breakdown", that he "dreaded batting" and at times "couldn't even talk about it" - and that symptoms of apathy, listlessness and numbness persisted much of the summer.

I began the season in a thoroughly bad state of mind, and I didn't feel like Ken Barrington at all. When I'm enjoying my cricket, there's tension at the crease and in the dressing room. Waiting to bat I'm nervous and keyed-up: chain-smoking, silent and worrying when things go wrong. I'm still pent up as I walk out to bat. But when I trudged to the wicket in 1966 I felt absolutely nothing; during an innings I couldn't concentrate (me, of all people!) and if things went badly and I got into a bad patch of poor scores I scarcely bothered. Again this wasn't like me. Throughout my career I've worried when I've lost form and struggled by study and practice to correct my faults. In 1966 I felt no emotion about anything.

Some outsiders surmised that Barrington's indifferent form was down to his again facing West Indies, and Griffith. By his account, Griffith barely registered. His description of his private condition and his decision to seek medication read chillingly.

What nobody knew was that mentally, and as a result physically, I'd now got myself in a terrible state. I just couldn't relax even at home, and in the worst of these times of tension I had frightening attacks of the "shakes" - an uncanny, unstoppable trembling of the fingers and hands. At cricket grounds I had to hide these troubles, but the Surrey boys must have sensed that I wasn't myself. I was strangely irritable; would blow up at the slightest provocation; even signing autographs annoyed me. There was only one sensible thing to do: consult my doctor. 'What you need is a holiday,' he said. Like a mug I didn't take one. I felt I wanted to get through the season without chickening out - and I set out to do so with the help of nerve tablets.

The admission is strikingly candid. These were the early days of psychopharmacology, when "nerve tablets" usually meant some kind of benzodiazepine, whether Librium or Valium. They were identified at the time not with elite athletes but weak housewives; it was the summer of the Rolling Stones' hit "Mother's Little Helper": "'Kids are different today, I hear ev'ry mother say / Mother needs something today to calm her down / And though she's not really ill / There's a little yellow pill / She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper."

Benzos were calming but also stultifying, inducing sleep and lethargy, and impairing motor skills - hardly helpful to a batsman about to face Griffith, Wes Hall, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. Predictably, Barrington failed at both Old Trafford and Lord's. Apart from taking exception to heckling from the crowd, he was subdued, almost morose.

There was muted reception for Barrington's book, unlike Trescothick's, which was warmly received and commended for shining light on an issue that cricket wasn't accustomed to confronting

There was muted reception for Barrington's book, unlike Trescothick's, which was warmly received and commended for shining light on an issue that cricket wasn't accustomed to confronting © Stanley Paul

Chosen for the third Test, Barrington again visited his doctor, and was prescribed "new pills" - presumably stronger tranquilisers. On the road to Nottingham the day before the game, in fact, he began feeling groggy: "Whether it was the pills, the journey or both I don't know, but I felt in a dreadful haze and absolutely whacked. That afternoon, I practised, feeling lousy." The denouement came at breakfast, when Insole's selection colleague Alec Bedser conveyed the panel's concerns - their fear that Barrington did not seem himself, that something might be wrong.

So far I'd kept my troubles a secret from everyone in cricket. I suppose that may have been wrong, but now I felt it only fair to come clean. I told Alec what it was all about and that I'd been under the doctor for a few weeks.

'How do you feel today?'

'Frankly, Alec, not too good.'

When Bedser took the message to Insole, the chairman of selectors gave Barrington a lift to Trent Bridge. "There's a place for you in the XI if you want it," Insole said in the car. "You're the only person who can tell if you're well enough to play. The decision is yours and we shall accept whatever you say." Barrington felt predictable anxieties: "I thought people would feel I was chickening out. I was frightened that if I resigned from this match I might be throwing away my Test career for ever." It had taken him four years to regain his place after his first omission; it occurred to him that he might effectively be ending his Test career. Yet Barrington felt so depleted that he "did not care" if he ever played again. "Doug," he said, "I feel I couldn't do justice to anyone if I played."

At the time the assumption was that Barrington had squibbed another encounter with Griffith. "The day began with a surprising announcement concerning Barrington's state of health," reported Woodcock in the Times. "He was suffering, it was said, from 'physical and nervous tension' which caused him sleepless nights and meant that he was in no condition for a Test match. Given the option of playing, he chose to stand down. The psychological victors, if they can be called that, are the West Indian fast bowlers, who have been gunning for Barrington as a result of his saying that he never wished to play against Griffith again." Yet had that been the case, Barrington would have enjoyed at least temporary relief, and there was none. He experienced instead the inertia of depression that William Styron in his great memoir Darkness Visible (1990) described as the "storm of murk" - "the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero."

The next few days were agony and cricket was out of the question. The tension worsened. It affected my neck and the back of my shoulders, giving me a feeling like impending paralysis. Even as I sat in my arm chair Ann had to rub and massage me to soothe the tension. Even at home I couldn't relax. Often I had to get out of bed in the small hours because I couldn't unwind enough to sleep. I had no interest in anything. When Ann took phone calls from me I'd sometimes have to shout at her to stop. It was at times like that I found myself saying those words… 'For God's sake shut up about cricket!' I never believed in nervous tension before but I certainly do now.

On his doctor's recommendation, Barrington and his wife visited Bournemouth for six nights, although, feeling self-conscious, he preferred watching golf on television to playing it and they dined in private. After another week, he took a tentative step back with a 2nd XI match at Guildford and some club and ground games, while continuing to feel desperate: "Although playing in a class of cricket far below Test standard I was so tensed up that, almost literally, I couldn't move at the wicket. It was a waste of everyone's time and when I was out I was livid."

Barrington and Rohan Kanhai (right) sign autographs in Sydney during the Double Wicket Championship in October 1968, shortly before Barrington suffered his first heart attack, during a match in Melbourne

Barrington and Rohan Kanhai (right) sign autographs in Sydney during the Double Wicket Championship in October 1968, shortly before Barrington suffered his first heart attack, during a match in Melbourne © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Barrington finally returned to the Championship on July 30, and continued to struggle, eking out a few scores but also collecting three first-ball ducks in three weeks. A century in the season's last county game came as a reassurance, a note he kept in Playing It Straight: he did not "feel I have recovered 100 per cent from that attack of nervous stress" but had "a hunch the old feeling for cricket… is coming back."

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If runs are a measure, it seemed to be: regaining his Test slot in 1967, Barrington topped the national first-class averages with 2059 runs at 68.63. Yet maybe the feeling did not ever completely return. Barrington's last England tour, to the West Indies in 1967-68, was unhappy. His biographer, Peel, found flashes of distress in his letters home and collected reports of disquiet on the tour: despite sleeping pills, "insomnia returned to haunt him"; despite steady form, he asked the manager to organise a health check, although a doctor could find nothing wrong.

Playing It Straight was published in April 1968. It actually occasioned little comment. Barrington at the time was suffering from gastric flu and a bad back, which ended up shortening his season. Where not perfunctory, reviews were curious. Wisden's John Arlott cautiously found it "more of a case history than one expects a cricket book to be"; The Cricket Quarterly's cantankerous Major Rowland Bowen dismissed it in a spittle-flecked rage.

The book purports to give us Barrington's feelings on a number of well-worn subjects, most of them by now drained of such interest as they might once have possessed. These include his nervous indisposition of two or three years ago for which, he alleges, he was given pills which he took and also recommended to take longer holidays than he did. It is obvious to even a non-medical mind that what he needed was not pills but a specialist. If the book has any value, which we doubt, at 25/-, it is to show (but surely not for the first time) how an individual endowed neither by birth nor other circumstances with the instincts and training which could have toughened him enough mentally, cracks under the strain when placed in circumstances too great for his own 'persona' to sustain.

Not long after, Major Bowen, using a hammer, hacksaw and chisel, notoriously sawed off his own leg in the bathtub.

Then in October 1968, in the unlikely setting of the short-lived World Double Wicket Championship at Melbourne's Junction Oval, Barrington collapsed with pain in his arm that quickly spread to his chest, and was hospitalised with a heart attack. It was the end of his playing career, Woodcock lamenting in Wisden that his "rugged physique had been undermined by the anxieties of representative cricket".

To what degree, it is impossible to know at this remove. In The Crack-Up (1936), F Scott Fitzgerald famously argued that all life was "a process of breaking down". He distinguished between those external blows that "do the dramatic side of the work" and those from within "that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again". Fitzgerald thought that while "the first sort of breakage" seemed to "happen quick", "the second kind" happened "almost without your knowing".

Barrington went on, of course, to a retirement role as a beloved manager cum coach cum confidante with England teams in the 1970s, before his death from a second heart attack in Barbados during a Test against West Indies in March 1981. In his classic Another Bloody Day in Paradise! (1981), Frank Keating describes the members of Ian Botham's team looking as "shell-shocked as if they'd heard their very bestest friend had died in the night". Keating's account movingly evokes the public Barrington: "He was the players' man, both spiritual and temporal. Each morning he gave them their individual alarm calls. In the nets he bowled at them and followed through to cajole or advise with tiny hints on technique; always a smile, always relishing the day like mustard." Then, with typical sensitivity, he picks up a little hint of the private Barrington: "Perhaps he knew there wasn't all that much time."

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

 

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