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Men’s Cricket ‘Sport is the most important of least important things’

LAYTH YOUSIF discusses Jonny Bairstow’s loss of his father to suicide, and gives his own brave account of losing two friends the same way

I THOUGHT about Jonny Bairstow a lot this week while I was at Headingley for the third Test against New Zealand. 

I thought about his excellent catch to claim tailender Neil Wagner to help Jack Leach to his first five-fer as England reduced New Zealand to 329 in the first innings today. 

I thought about his record-breaking century at Trent Bridge that all but hauled England over the line against New Zealand in the second Test. 

I thought about his form that underpinned one of the greatest days in English Test history, when his fifth wicket stand of 179 in 20.1 overs with Ben Stokes transformed a tough run chase of 299 into a cakewalk.

I thought about his heartening run of form over the last few months. I thought about his spirited 113 at the SCG over the winter that saw him notch England’s only Test ton in another disappointing Ashes. I thought about him following that up with his 140 in the first Test of the West Indies tour this spring. 

I thought about him when rereading his searingly honest book A Clear Blue Sky over the last few days. 

I thought about him losing his beloved dad and former Test cricketer David to suicide. 

I thought about him as a terrified eight-year-old having to process the fact his father had taken his own life — and the dawning realisation that his life was to change. Change utterly. 

This week I also thought about two of my friends that committed suicide.

This week in 1993, my friend John “Detty” Price committed suicide. 

We were pals at Newcastle University among a large, sociable group. Our second year was just about to end. Detty, as everyone called him, was about to spend the summer exploring Canada. But first he was heading back to his hometown of Ormskirk in Lancashire. He was looking forward to it. Or so we thought. 

On returning to his parents’ farm he took a licenced gun the family owned and took his own life under a leafy tree near to their home. 

It rocked us all. 

We talked long into the night for days, trying to make sense of it all. I spent my 21st birthday at his funeral. 

Did Detty know how much he was liked and loved? Did he know how many people would have been there for a chat if we’d only realised. 

Did he understand how many would have willed him to seek help, to cope with, to live with — what we know now — must have been a crippling depression. A lonely depression that locked him into unknown dark thoughts that were to end his life, so sadly, so prematurely 29 long years ago. 

If he could have only seen the outpouring of love at his funeral. A funeral that saw standing room only — on a day I can still recall as if it were yesterday — as so many people who cared about him came to pay their respects. If he could have seen all that affection, would he have carried out his final, tragic act? 

My friends and I have struggled with these “what ifs” — and so many other questions in the years since. 

These unanswered questions were compounded when another friend ended her life three years ago last month. I won’t mention her name here because the painful fallout from her passing is still reverberating now for many, including myself. As they still do for Detty too. 

As Jonny Bairstow writes in his powerful book co-authored with the peerless sport chronicler author Duncan Hamilton: “Few knew my dad was sick and fewer still knew the extent of that sickness, because he hid it far too well. 

“Torturing yourself with ‘what if’ questions is pointless. 

“No matter how long you dwell on them, you only ever end up circling back to the spot where you started, absolutely no wiser. But you still end up asking those questions anyway.”

Which, for me, is why, I will always subscribe to my favourite quote that “Sport is the most important of least important things.”

Meaning after you strip back what means the most to you: family and friends, your career — what remains? What is important to you? 

For some that is politics. For others, it is music or travel. For me, despite being interested in all of the above, it is sport that means the most to me of “least important things.”

It has given me the highest of highs on and off the field, while, at times, delivering crushing lows that completely envelope you. Until, that is, you remember, that it is only a game. Games that mean everything. And absolutely nothing. 

Looking back, for me personally, in the aftermath of her death in May 2019, I left a high-profile job in sports journalism because my heart simply wasn’t in it. Writing about football when one of my closest friends had just taken her life seemed as pointless as it was vacuous. 

But I also vowed there and then I would never again do anything that I didn’t want to do. I would face life on my own terms. 

It’s been hard at times. But busy. And rewarding. I enjoy everything I do. And that is important. In my career. In life. In journalism. 

It’s also why I never subscribe to the trite maxim that “winning in sport isn’t life or death, it’s far more important than that” — because it isn’t. It really isn’t. 

One of the reasons sport exists is because it brings joy. And fun. And exhilaration. And passion. And happiness.

Which is why I have savoured the Test series between England and New Zealand as deeply as I have for a very long time. 

Because it has been enjoyable. Not least thanks to Jonny Bairstow’s exploits this summer, among a raft of others, on both sides. 

Which is also why, despite a slow but absorbing first day at Headingley, I loved every minute of it, sitting in the rambunctious Western Terrace where we drank to everything and nothing. To sport of course. And memories. But mostly to friendship. And to absent friends.

Bairstow ends his book: “Life goes on. It must. And you have to catch happiness as it flies, enjoying it there and then for however long it lasts.” 

Which is why I have been thinking of Jonny Bairstow a lot this week. 

For access to confidential support in times of distress, The Samaritans are available at any time, 24/7. Simply call 116 123 free from any phone, or by emailing [email protected].

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