BIG INTERVIEW: Former England and Lancashire batsman Graeme Fowler talks about his eventful life
Red Rose supporters of a certain generation will still remember Graeme Fowler in full flow.
Striding to the crease with a golden smile on a sun-dappled morning at Southport; swishing his favourite Duncan Fearnley bat high above his head, and seemingly without a care in the world.
“I’ve always had two reactions when people have found out that I suffer from depression,” said Lancastrian Fowler.
“The first is: ‘How can you have mental health issues? You’ve always been bright, bubbly and fun’.
“Either that or, ‘I’ve always known you were a lunatic’.
“Depression doesn’t make me a bad person.
“I haven’t thrown a brick through your window or nicked your car.”
Fowler, who now lives in County Durham, added: “People often ask ‘Is it the game’s fault?
“My view is that I don’t think cricket attracts depressive people, but it is a sport based on failure.
“It can be a mentally stressful place if you’re not playing well, but that’s not the same as having a mental health issue.”
Fowler was schooled in the rough and tumble of the Lancashire League, talented enough to be opening the batting for Accrington’s first team at the age of 15, and in his new autobiography – Absolutely Foxed – he tackles the subject of his own mental health issues unflinchingly.
Depression struck him out of the blue at 47, long after his playing career had finished, yet two decades earlier he had been at the peak of his powers.
Fowler hit 1,307 Test runs for England – including the first-ever double century by an Englishman on Indian soil.
In 1984, against a West Indies attack featuring Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall, he clawed his way to a century at Lord’s.
But the former Lancashire batsman played only two more Tests after his mammoth 201 in the punishing heat of Madras.
He reveals how a neck injury sustained in a car crash six years earlier manifested itself and ended his international career in an era when players were quickly forgotten by selectors.
“I was so proud to play for my country, to pull on that shirt, but they were massively different days,” said Fowler, who will talk about his eventful life at The Grand Theatre, in Clitheroe, later this month.
“We had a beer income and a champagne lifestyle really when I played.
“Now they have a champagne income and a champagne lifestyle and good luck to them.”
Opening the innings, says Fowler, provides the ultimate challenge for a batsman.
“That’s where you see the game at its hardest and its best,” he said.
“It was Bumble (David Lloyd) who taught me that openers have to soften the ball up so the glamour boys can cash in.”
Fowler’s career ended at Durham, but he went on to become a coach of distinction, founding an academy that became the blueprint for others around the country and producing more than 60 professional cricketers’ which included future England captain Andrew Strauss.
Strauss said recently: “Graeme Fowler was the man who turned me from a recreational cricketer to someone who believed he could play professionally.”
Fowler enjoyed a stint of radio punditry, where he was most entertaining behind the microphone alongside Christoper Martin Jenkins and Jonathan Agnew as part of the BBC Test Match Special Team.
However, for all the derring-do with the bat, though, it is Fowler’s very public battle with depression that has seen him become a passionate and vocal advocate for mental health issues.
“Everything was perfect. I had a wife, children and a job,” recalled Fowler.
“There was no trigger, nothing. I did not realise I had disconnected from everyone.
“Without even noticing, I hadn’t spoken to anyone for weeks.
“In fact, I didn’t really want to be alive.
“Life simply had no point.
“Everything was hopeless, pointless, worthless.
“The doctor was blunt when I saw him, asking me if I’d thought of suicide?
“The answer was ‘no’.
“I knew that all that was good in my life existed.
“I just couldn’t get to it.”
Fowler said the really bad periods of depression are immensely difficult, recalling how during one episode he never left the house for six weeks.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t analyse anything,” he added.
“It was as if my head had stopped working.
“All I felt was like I was at the bottom of a well.
“This was the man Richie Benaud once called the best cover fielder in the world and I couldn’t get off the settee to make a cup of tea.
“I’ve no idea why it happened.
“I’ve given up trying to work out why.
“I can only think I’d been a dynamo for 40 years and my head eventually said, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going on holiday. Bye’.
Fowler is aged 59 now and he is working with the Professional Cricketers’ Association educating young players on the mental health issues that have afflicted him.
Marcus Trescothick, Michael Yardy and Jonathan Trott have all been at the vanguard of bringing the topic of depression out into the open and Fowler says it has helped shift boundaries – encouraging others to seek help.
“Cricket is generally very receptive to the issue, and encourages people to be open, honest and deal with it,” he said.
“There remain others stuck in the Dark Ages though.
“I thought David Warner’s comment about Trott being weak in Australia was crass and ignorant.
“He thought he was being hard and clever.
“He wasn’t; he was being an idiot.”
Fowler is convinced cricket is far ahead of other sports – particularly football – in dealing with mental health.
“A lot of other sports don’t really acknowledge it, they are frightened and it’s easier to shove it in a cupboard.
“By being honest people come round.”
Fowler remembers sitting next to a very well respected football manager at a dinner and they got talking about mental health.
“What did you do with players who might have had any issues?’ I asked him.
“Would you send them to talk to someone, sit down with them yourself, have a chat, try to work things out?’
He looked at me. ‘No’, he said. ‘I just got rid of them’.
“It was incredible to hear that.
“Nobody, professional sportsman or otherwise, should ever be treated like that.
“Cricket is trying to ensure that never happens.
“And if by adding my voice and experience to the debate I can help to change attitudes, reinforce the fact there should never be stigma attached to mental health, then I can take some satisfaction.”
An evening with Graeme Fowler takes place on Wednesday, November 23 at Clitheroe Grand Theatre, in York Street.
For further information contact the Box Office on 01200 421599 or access the website www.thegrandvenue.co.uk