Mark Mason

Cricket is one of the best anti-depressants

I love it when the England cricket team flies east in the winter. It means they’re playing in the early morning, UK time, and that’s just when I need them the most. Because cricket is a powerful antidepressant.

Without the sound or sight of bat on ball, early mornings at the moment would hold their usual threat

The fireworks of Bazball have been lighting up the sky for nearly two years now, and as that period has coincided with war and economic doom, the on-field heroics of Ben Stokes and the gang have been particularly welcome. But, thrilling as last year’s Ashes undoubtedly were, they still took place in the summer, the time of year when depression is at its least potent. Come the dark days – in every sense – of January and February, and that’s when the beast really lurks. Especially pre-dawn. An early 4 a.m. start in India is just what the doctor ordered.

Without the sound or sight of bat on ball, early mornings at the moment would hold their usual threat, should you be of the type. Deprived of sunlight and vitamin D, you would be waking early, sick of the darkness, devoid of hope. Yes, you’d know that in a couple of hours there will be things you can do: get up, walk the dog, force the physical to rally the emotional. But for now, it would be low time.

With England in India, however, salvation is just a switch-flick away. Reach for the remote, or the radio, and there it is: your favourite sport. Test cricket is made for getting lost in – its ebbs and flows, its rhythms and subtleties take five whole days to play out. George Bernard Shaw was trying to sneer when he said his thing about the English, being not very spiritual, having invented cricket to give themselves some idea of eternity. But that, dear George, is what many of us love about it. Eternity offers all the time you need to forget about being depressed. This is a force so powerful that it applies even when TalkSport have got the rights, rather than Test Match Special.

It’s not so much the on-field action itself (good job, given England’s performance last weekend). It’s more the fact that cricket exists at all, and the associations that go with it. This match in the heat of the subcontinent is a reminder that summer will, eventually, return to Britain. And then there will be Lord’s, and a seat in the Mound Stand.

Just as important as the actual cricket will be the peripheral joys, like your stroll around the back of the pavilion to marvel at just how red an MCC member’s trousers can be. And perhaps, while you’re there, the arrival of the players. You will experience that schoolboy thrill at being just feet from the England captain. Even though he was born after you left school.

I suppose it’s only fair that cricket combats depression: it causes enough of the stuff in the first place. The suicide rate among players is famously much higher than average. One of those who took his own life was David Bairstow, which is why his son Jonny looks to the heavens whenever he makes a century. The link is probably due to cricketers being more intelligent than other sportsmen, making them more vulnerable to the ‘intelligent person’s curse’, as depression has been labelled. To quote Jeffrey Bernard in this magazine: ‘I have yet to see or meet an unhappy village idiot.’ It was a cruel irony that Marcus Trescothick’s depression forced him to fly home from England tours of both India and Australia. They’re the tours that help many of us cope.

Cricket was never more crucial for me than during England’s tour to India in early 2021. The world was at the height of its Covid madness, and those who struggle with winter in the best of years were being pushed towards the edge. Some went over. But with days to go, Channel 4 secured the rights. Test cricket was available on terrestrial TV for the first time since 2005. I’m sure it saved lives.

An England tour to Australia or New Zealand means the antidepressant is available throughout the night. Play lasts from (roughly) midnight to midday, meaning you can go to sleep listening to it, certain in the knowledge that it will be there however often, and for however long, when you wake up. It’s the ultimate lullaby, albeit one you don’t actually want to nod off to, because that means missing the play.

Indeed, following a Test match is in many ways more rewarding during the night than during the day – you can concentrate properly, free from the distractions of phone calls and Amazon deliveries. In the prison of a February morning, Test cricket reminds us that (to quote George Harrison rather than Bernard Shaw) all things must pass. It won’t be dark for ever.