Transcript: Couch Talk with Angus Porter, PCA

Couch Talk 97 (Play)

Guest: Angus Porter, Chief Executive, Professional Cricketers’ Association

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the Chief Executive of the Professional Cricketers Association, Angus Porter. We talk about the support system that the PCA provides for the English players regarding several issues such as mental health, alcohol and behavioral problems, corruption etc, and also the scheduling conflicts with respect to IPL amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Angus!

Angus Porter (AP)– Thank you!

SJ– Let’s begin with the PCA itself. Your stated goal is “To promote and protect the interested of the members.” – members that are both the English first class cricketers from both current and the past. Does your engagement limit only to the relationship between the players and the ECB and the counties therein or extend to, say, the T20 franchises that the English players may be playing in around the world?

AP– We are there to support the players. The definition of “our current members” is any player who has a contract with either the ECB or one of the first class counties. We embrace the players coming from overseas to play in England. And of course, we also have a duty to cater to those players if they are playing somewhere else across the globe, yes, including when they are playing in T20 cricket. We try to make sure that they are well advised and well looked after.

SJ– Alright. I want to talk about the different caring and support systems that you have in place. First of all, I want to start with the one that happened recently – Monty Panesar, where he got into trouble for urinating on bouncers outside a night club. He has since been let go by his county. Where does the PCA come into this, in terms of helping him regroup and recover his image, so on and so forth?

AP– Well, as you might understand, I might not talk about an individual case. I think one of the important principles is that when we go out to help a player, we do so in confidence; and that confidence would be damaged if I talked publically about the support we give.

If I can broaden it out to more general terms – education and player welfare are the core parts of what we do. In this context, player welfare involves us being there to support players who have problems that may be cricket related or personal or family related. Our job, we believe, is to make sure that they have got appropriate support network, appropriate access to any assistance that they might need. That might be assistance that we can give directly – we have a team of 6 personal development managers, each of whom covers three counties and aim to build up personal relationships with players and help them to manage their lives off the field and as such prepare for life after cricket.

We also have support services available which can be accessed either through us or directly through confidential help. A player can get hold of or get access to advice from medical professionals, whether that is to deal with mental illness or stress related or some other particular issue that they are dealing with. We try to be there and to access an extended family of players and help them whenever they need us.

SJ– Without actually talking about this particular player, in terms of alcohol or behaviour or personal problems, I would like to get more information on the type of support network that you provide.

AP– The front end of what we do is to do a lot of education. We begin the engagement with players in the county academies before they become cricketers and there we will begin talking to them about lifestyle including issues which are very prevalent in British society and other societies around alcohol and drugs and so forth. We also begin an engagement at that point in other key matters like anti-corruption. A large part of what we do is education. It is about talking to people about the rights and wrongs, about looking after themselves. And, so often doing the right things from a lifestyle point of view is the right thing from a cricketer’s point of view. That is helpful because a young man tends to be very focused on cricketing success, and so, getting them into good habits in terms of the way they live their lives off their edge is consistent with their desire to be successful on the pitch.

Now, if things do go wrong, and education can only take you so far, then we have a partnership with a network of medical professionals which is provided through an organisation called LPP. We have a confidential helpline through which players can be assessed. They will first of all, if they have got a problem, or if they think a teammate has a problem, then a player can ring on behalf of their teammate – they will get an initial assessment. Then, we have got a network of medical professionals who specialise in the different types of challenges that somebody might have. If somebody has, say, an alcohol problem, we would probably expect them to be helped by somebody who is specialised in that area. If they have a mental illness or a problem with anxiety or depression, we will put them in touch with the most appropriate person.

The fun thing of all that treatment is that it is covered by us through the PCA’s benevolent fund, one of the things that the PCA does is to fundraise for the benevolent fund which helps players who have problems either from a medical point of view or financial point of view, and past players as well. So, it is critical that this support continues after the players have stopped playing as well. it also funds the confidential helpline and the network that is behind it.

SJ– I want to bring on the topic that you had mentioned briefly, which is about corruption – the problem of corruption in cricket – the spot fixing and all that. We had an issue with one English player, Mervyn Westfield. What sort of pre-emptive measures are taken by the PCA, and what were the steps in place before this particular issue and how you may have stepped it up since?

AP– The Mervyn Westfield case dates back to 2009. That predates my time in the organisation. Wwe had talked to players about the dangers of corruption. To be modest, I don’t think at that time, we were doing as much as we could or should have done, any of us, in cricket. Since then, and it was in early 2010, which coincided with my arrival in PCA, we decided that we should increase the around of education that we gave to players about the risks of corruption – understanding not only what the offenses were, both in terms of the ICC and ECB codes relating to corruption, but also about the laws relating to gambling and inside information that exist in this country. We felt that we needed to educate players to understand that more, and more specifically to understand their responsibility with respect to things like inside information and their duty to report.

We did a big focus session with each of the counties in 2010. It was actually after our session at Essex, that players at Essex realised that they had a duty to report what they knew about Mervyn and Danish Kaneria. That was what brought the whole situation to light. Since that time, we have led anti-corruption education in English cricket. It is a key role for players’ association to take. It is in partnership with the England and Wales Cricket Board. They have funded much of what we have done. We have led it on the basis that we have a particular close confidential relationship with players and they feel more confident opening up to us and talking to us about their concerns.

We have now reached a point where in order to be registered to play first class cricket in England, you have to have passed an online tutorial which both presents the facts to you in terms of what the offences are, what you need to do and what the consequences are if you do offend. It presents that information to them and an online forum asks questions to check your understanding. that whole set-up is unique in world sports. It is the sort of thing that we should be looking to implement as consistently as we can across world cricket.

SJ– I want to further talk about this because Mervyn has served a jail sentence and he is not allowed to play cricket till 2017, I believe. But, you just can’t let a player in the lurch. Yes, he screwed up. He is doing the time for the crime. But, what is the current relationship of the PCA with Mervyn? What sort of work has been done with him to rehabilitate him and perhaps get him back into cricket?

AP– That is a very pertinent question. We, right now, are in a process of editing some film material that Mervyn cooperated with. He recently had his cricketing sentences adjusted so that he will be able to come back into club cricket, at least, a year earlier than what was originally envisaged for cooperating with our educating efforts. We have done some filming with Mervyn, and that is going to be hugely valuable material for education other cricketers, particularly young cricketers, to bring to life just how easy it is to get sucked into a situation which can then spiral out of control. Our experience with education is that players will listen to other players more than they will listen to me or anybody else. That is very valuable. We are developing a very good relationship with Mervyn and are helping him to rehabilitate himself. We are helping him to get educational qualifications and so forth, and are anxious to see him able to return at least into club cricket in the first instance.

SJ– You mentioned that you had joined the PCA in the early part of 2010. So, you must have had a rude welcome with all the stuff that happened with Pakistan in the tour to England that summer.

AP– It was an interesting time. The things in cricket and player associations have no difference, is that from time to time things jump up and catch you unaware. Quite often you have to work things out as you go along because situations would arise that you would not have anticipated. You are right, that whole issue that summer was quite a challenging one. From my point of view, the role of player association is not to sit on the sidelines, to throw stones on people, but to get involved and try and ensure that the right thing is done. If something has gone wrong, then we all learn lessons and try to do it better. That characterises the relationship that we have with the ECB in recent years. We have worked in partnership on many things.

Right now, for instance, I have learned from the tragedy of Tom Maynard’s death last year to implement a new process of out-of-competition testing for recreational drugs. That is something that we think, as a responsible player association with a duty to care for both to the game and to our members, it is sensible to do, just as long as it is done in a way that doesn’t link the taking of non performance enhancing drugs to a sporting crime because it is very different from somebody who is actually taking steroids in order to cheat. We are talking about somebody who has a lifestyle issue. We are talking about a personal problem which should be linked into counselling and treatment. I think, by taking a responsible position in areas like this, we are able to guide the game in a very constructive way.

SJ– You mentioned the confidential helpline that the PCA has to help players with behavioural issues, alcohol issues, drug issues, even problems with family bereavement and all that. How much of that helpline is getting used? Because, athletes, especially male athletes, they are considered to be impervious to emotions and feelings of this sort where they seek solutions, because they are supposed to have all the answers.

AP– That is a very good point. We are seeing access to the helpline increase significantly. At any point in time, we are probably supporting or the order of 10-20 current and past players. But, the use of that helpline has increased over the past 2-3 years. the reason for that, I think is because we have been lucky enough to have some very strong individuals who have been prepared to talk about their challenges and make it OK for other people to do likewise. Here, I would highlight Marcus Trescothick. When he talked publically about his struggles with depression, given his stature as a man and as a cricketer, it did more than any of the rest of us can to communicate to other cricketers and other past players that it is not a sign of weakness to admit to a problem and to ask for help. It is a sign of strength. Marcus has been joined by other players who have also been prepared to admit to having their demons. That has been brilliant for us, and is a good lesson. it does also mean that not only can we help the cricketing community, but we know that people like Marcus and the work that he has done have helped men more generally because an unwillingness to go to a doctor or seek help is not exclusive to sportsmen, but is a problem that all men face.

SJ– I saw that tutorial on the PCA website – Mind Matters. I went through the entire thing. It is wonderfully put together, where people can identify whether they have any of the symptoms of any mental health issues – anxiety, depression, etc. so, for example, one of the players goes through the tutorial and he goes “Check. Check. Check.” He is showing symptoms of depression at some stage. What does the PCA do from there? Where do you go from there?

AP– I think players can opt to do a number of things. One of the important things to point out about those tutorials is that we don’t expect all players to sit down and spend half an hour or an hour going through a tutorial if they don’t think it is relevant to them. It is a resource that is available for them if they think they have a problem or as indeed said early, if they think if a teammate has a problem. We have got a very slim book on depression that we have sent out to, again, a special edition of the book has already been written with a foreword written by Marcus Trescothick, that we sent out to all past players. You can’t expect an online solution to provide the total answer. The interesting thing about that book is that I don’t think a majority of the past players have read it, but what we have been struck by is the number of people who have come back and said and said “I got this book, and I gave it to my wife and she read it and this is great because this is exactly what she has been struggling with.” or, “ father…” or, “…” or “…my friend…” or whatever. We are hopeful that people will put it on the bookshelf and have it available when they need it.

What do they do if they identify that they have a problem? Well, as I said before, they have got the confidential helpline they can ring direct. In practice, they quite often will come through us, through the personal development manager with whom they have got a relationship, with Jason Radcliffe who heads a member services team and who has a brilliant reputation in English cricket. Players know him, they trust him, and he is an ex-pro. So he understands everything that they are going through. Quite often people prefer the personal contacts and will be channelled into the system through that.

The one thing that we can’t do is to make people ask for help. It is a little bit like the work we do on education, preparing people for life after cricket. We can make the services available, we can encourage, in the end it is down to the individual. All we can do is to encourage, develop a culture in the dressing rooms which is designed to be support-ful and when someone has an issue, we actually get someone from within that dressing room letting us know or letting the county know or letting the player know about the problem and encouraging them to reach out to us for support.

SJ– Another thing that has some social stigma, in some parts of the world at least, is that when a player is gay and he comes out, but generally [players] do never come out, but in England and Surrey’s case, Steve Davies came out as gay, a couple of years ago. Does the PCA have any role in providing a support system, anything of that sort?

AP– Yes, indeed. Actually, the most notable thing about Steve Davies when he came out, the general reaction from players was to shrug their shoulders and say that it is no big deal. He has had no issues with it, which is very encouraging and marks out cricket as being a sport which is a bit different from other sports but people might be afraid of the reaction that they either get from opponents or colleagues or spectators. We are currently working with Steve Davies on an education program that he wants to take into schools, where his motive is all about the fact that many young people commit suicide as a consequence of struggling with their sexuality. This is a major issue in one where sports can play a role. If someone like Steve Davies can talk very openly and honestly about the challenges that he has faced, then he can do a lot of good in reaching out to kids who are very influenced by their sporting heroes. We are currently working with Steve to help him develop that education package which hopefully we will be rolling out in schools sooner rather than later.

SJ– I want to go back to your stated mission/goal being protecting the interest of England players. We have had situations in the last few years, especially with the IPL coinciding with the beginning with the home summer season of cricket in England, and ECB scheduling Tests in the month of May which wasn’t a good thing for the England players. But now, for the 2014 season, there are not going to be any Tests scheduled for the month of May. How much of a role did PCA have in it? were there concerns expressed by the top English players, like Kevin Pietersen or Matt Prior or whoever, that they needed that space so they could make an additional living in the IPL?

AP– Yes. This continues to be a topic of major interest and concern. I don’t think that we will get anywhere as an organization if we approach an issue like this in a confrontational way because the realities are that as well as representing the interest of the current and past players, the other bit is that we have a duty to the future generation of cricketers. Therefore, we are very concerned about making sure that the game heads in the right direction and that it is sustainable. We are also very clear that Test cricket delivers the overwhelming percentage of income to the English game and that supports the county game and the grass roots game as well. We are constantly struggling with trying to do the right thing for a relatively small number of elite players and do the right thing for the game and the right thing for the board and membership and our future membership. So, having said all of that, I think that what we are anxious to do is to make sure that first of all we don’t undermine Test cricket in this country.

Secondly, if it is possible to minimise the overlaps between the IPL and our season, we should do so. And so, we were actively engaged in very constructive discussions with the ECB who in this situation as in many others have broadly the same agenda as we do. we were able to find a way in structuring the season next year which does reduce that overlap somewhat. It has the added benefits of allowing teh domestic schedule to be launched without it being in the shadow of the first Test matches of the summer. It is kind of a win-win-win solution. And, from a player point of view, it doesn’t completely fix the problem, but it reduces the overlap a little bit and allows players to be available for the IPL for longer.

SJ– So, do we expect that kind of arrangement to continue further as well, beyond 2014, where there are no home Tests in England in the month of May?

AP– I don’t think I can say confidently that this is the new template that we will always apply because as we all know, the international calendar is complex and ever-changing. So, at this point, we look at 2014 and we think that we will do something similar in 2015, but of course, every year there are ICC events – World Cups, World T20s, and so forth. So, we will have to manage it on an year by year basis. I am certainly not saying to our players that this is the formula that we will apply from now on because I am not in a position to promise that. But, it is indicative of the goodwill on the part of the players and the ECB to try and accommodate this opportunity for the players, if we can.

SJ– I want to touch upon something that happened last summer, which is the Kevin Pietersen text message scandal. Did the PCA have any role in the fall-out of it, in the sense that, did you have to take sides or you were just on the sidelines and you had nothing to do with it?

AP– Again, I prefer not to talk about specific incidents because of the confidentiality of it. But of course, it is an example of the sort of situation that we come across all the time where potentially you can find yourself in a conflictive position if different groups of players are on different sides of a particular issue. And, as a general principle, what we try to do is to work to find a constructive solution that works for everybody rather than taking sides. Of course, we are always involved in major issues. I am glad that the Kevin Pietersen issue, without talking specifically about the role that we played, I am very glad that we got a good outcome in that case.

SJ– Alright! Fair enough.

I will let you go with one last question. This is regarding PCA and other player associations and FICA. Tim May was replaced by L. Sivaramakrishnan as the ICC player representative in the cricket committee. And, FICA had, which looked to be the right reasons, had issue with it. There was a lot of back and forth going on. What has come off it? We haven’t heard anything about that issue lately.

AP– There is continuing dialogue between the player associations represented by FICA and with the ICC. I think that the big broad issue that we are talking about here is proper recognition of players and the right of players to be represented by an elected representative through player associations. What is the case at the moment is that it is demonstrably clear that there are some boards that don’t recognise the value the player associations can bring. I think that that is something that we as player associations have to take responsibility for. We have to demonstrate that we are not here to make trouble, but that we are here to try and make this game better. Having proper representation of the players is helpful not only for the players, but it is helpful for administrators because otherwise you are trying to determine playing conditions and terms for ICC competitions and getting views on cricketing issues without having a partner who can actually do the research and represent those player views authoritatively.

SJ– But, in this case, the elevation of L. Siva to that position, what seemed to be wrong was that the processes were tampered with, perhaps. FICA had issues with it, but ICC says nothing wrong was done. Where is that particular issue now?

AP– Look, at the moment, we have put that on pause because I am not sure if that would be constructive to go down that route. That issue may be reopened. But, I dont think that the process that was used in the election is a big issue. I think that the big issue is that if we are going to have somebody who is representing the players, and that is what it says on their business card in the context of the cricket committee where they are there as a player representative, you need to have somebody at the table who has the means of ensuring that they are equipped to represent the views of the players. That is my issue. I dont see how anybody who hasn’t got the resources of the player associations to research and understand where the players are coming from, can claim that they are representing the views of their players. All they can do is to say what they think the players think, which is likely to be a very different thing.

SJ– True. Alright!

On that note, thank you so much for coming on the show, Angus! It was a pleasure talking to you!

AP– Thank you! Thank you, Subash!

SJ– Cheers!

AP– Cheers! Bye, bye!

SJ-Bye, bye!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabhiraman