JLT Sheffield Shield 2018-19
All in the mind: Silk reveals rough road
Jordan Silk walked away from cricket when he couldn't find joy in the game. Having rediscovered that love, he wants to share the wisdom he has gained with others
At the beginning of the summer just passed, Jordan Silk watched the Will Pucovski story unfold with a keener eye than most.
On Pucovski's behalf, Cricket Victoria had cited a mental health issue as the catalyst for their young player's surprising decision to take some time away from the game. Then in January, the 20-year-old opened up publicly about his struggles.
As Silk rode the season's relentless cricket carousel with first Tasmania and then Sydney Sixers, he felt empathy but also admiration for a young man who had so candidly communicated a deeply personal issue.
Three years earlier, Silk had decided to keep his battle private, for one simple reason.
"I was ashamed," he says.
The first time Jordan Silk stepped foot onto Tasmania, he was moving there for his foreseeable future. As a 20-year-old, he had been picked up by a Tigers talent scout from the relative obscurity of Sydney grade cricket. Tasmania, runners up in the previous Sheffield Shield season, had offered him a rookie contract, though Silk couldn't begin to fathom why.
"Certainly at Under 19 level I hadn't set the world alight with New South Wales," he says. "I wasn't really setting the world alight in first grade either.
"When I got the offer, I didn't think I was worthy. I still felt so far down the pecking order at New South Wales.
"The opportunity to go to Tassie was like, 'Oh my God – how good's this?'"
Silk grew up in the suburb of Glenbrook, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, from where he idolised Ricky Ponting and Brett Lee in the cricket world, and golfer Tiger Woods. Much of his early cricket development happened alongside current superstar Pat Cummins – the pair even shared the new ball in their local Under 10s rep team at Penrith.
"I remember countless occasions going around to Pat's place and playing a heap of backyard cricket with him and his brothers," he says. "Still some of the hardest cricket I've ever played to this day, no doubt.
"His backyard had a downhill slope, they'd mow a 12-yard strip, and sprinkle it (with water) so it was fast. They'd use a rubber ball or an Incredi-ball, then they'd just steam in down the hill.
"You can imagine how quick Pat would've been. You had no choice but to get back, and duck under a few.
"I credit that as one of the reasons why I'm a better back-foot player than I am a front-foot player."
Silk had already spent significant chunks of time away from home playing in the UK and in Darwin, so the idea of packing up his life and relocating to Tasmania didn't faze him. Besides, he was barely out of his teens and saw only upside; as far as the self-described "absolute cricket nuffy" was concerned, professional cricket was his future, and if an interstate shift meant it would happen sooner, well that was all the better.
His positivity continued through the whole first season, during which he made his Shield debut in March after toiling away with his grade side North Hobart, and playing the odd Futures League game for his adopted state.
In his second match, against Victoria, he posted a maiden first-class hundred and shared a century stand with Ponting. Silk remembers the legendary batsman hurrying him through for a risky single to get him to that special milestone, and earlier, Ponting had intervened when the Vics had targeted the rookie batsman verbally.
"He came down and shut everyone up, basically," he recalls. "And then I was allowed to get on with my innings."
Silk made it two hundreds from three matches when the Tigers turned the tables on Queensland to win that summer's Shield final, and before he could quite grasp how rapidly his star had risen, he was celebrating a call-up to the Australia A squad to tour the UK.
"We had Siddle, Pattinson, Bird, Khawaja, Haddin," he says. "I was just like, What is going on? It was surreal. I'd just had my 21st birthday."
The following summer, two more Shield hundreds followed. They were accompanied by what remains perhaps the greatest-ever Big Bash catch – a stunning diving effort at mid-on – and the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year award.
Silk looks back on his own meteoric rise and recognises it in those of fellow top-order players Matt Renshaw and Pucovski. By the same token, the experiences of the Tigers batsman in the seasons following his heady formative years is a cautionary one for the younger pair. Renshaw, who made his Test debut three years ago, is already experiencing the fickleness of fortune.
For Silk, it was a gradual decline in performance borne of, he believes, a failure to "evolve as a cricketer".
"I look back and I think maybe I just rested on the things that I did well," he reflects. "That's one mistake you can get into as a young player – if you have that one good season you just bank on, 'If it goes poorly, I can just refer back to how I was batting then'.
"But I just don't know if that works.
"In this game, where technology allows analysts to do a lot of research on you, I didn't figure out quickly enough how teams were going to start bowling to me, which was a lot different to what it was when I first started.
"That caught me out."
Silk missed the back-end of the 2013-14 Shield season with a shin stress injury, was selected as part of the National Performance Squad to be based in Brisbane through much of the winter that followed, then averaged 27.94 in the next Shield campaign, without making a hundred.
The novelty and excitement attached to his first 12 months had been replaced by the realities of life as a first-class cricketer: injury, form concerns, pressure, and the constant grind of life as a professional sportsperson. The consequence was a shift in Silk's persona and outlook, which was noticed by his close friend and opening batting partner Alex Doolan.
"I think a lot cricketers sort of go through that phase of, if they're not performing how they want to be performing, they find themselves in a pretty dark spot, but I probably didn't realise how bad Jordan was," Doolan says.
"He's always been a bubbly character and someone who I've seen to be a really resilient person. So for him to open up to me, and tell me what he was going through, I thought that was firstly really brave, but also a real stepping stone for him to getting back on the right path."
It had come to a head in Queensland, when the Tigers headed north for a series of pre-season warm-up matches after a torturous winter slog on the icy training paddocks of Bellerive. Silk had reached a point where he felt forced to confront a thought he had been pushing to the back of his mind. It was one he still couldn't quite believe he was having.
He didn't want to play cricket.
Three weeks before Tasmania were due to play their first game of that summer's one-day domestic tournament, Silk sent out a simple, four-letter tweet:
"R U OK?"
No-one realised the extent of it at the time – perhaps not even Silk himself – but it was a cry for help. For months, the feeling had been nagging him like water torture. Drip, drip, drip.
"I made some runs in a practice game on that Queensland tour, and I just got no satisfaction from it whatsoever," he says. "I just thought, that is bizarre.
"And then if I was to have a bad day, it was all boiling over – I'd be really pissed off and absolutely done with it.
"I wasn't enjoying cricket. Simple as that, really."
For Silk, none of it added up. He was living out his dream of being a professional cricketer. He had won a title, accolades and plaudits. Yet here he was, about to cut himself adrift from all of it. But he had arrived at a sort of crossroads; this was something he had to do.
"I've tried to think about deep down, what was the reason behind that," he says. "I mean, I absolutely love the game. And that's what I really struggled with in my own head: Why am I feeling like this? I've got one of the greatest opportunities, and I've just walked away from it.
"That was the hardest thing for me to get my head around – that I couldn't love the game that I had grown up loving.
"It was a tough decision, no doubt – but cricket at the time just didn't feel right. I just couldn't find any joy for the game."
Silk spoke with Doolan about his mental state and the way in which it had devolved over the preceding 12 months. Having experienced the tribulations of the game himself, Doolan empathised and offered some heartfelt advice.
"I told him that he wasn't alone," he says. "But I also tried to reaffirm to him that cricket's just a game.
"Yes, it's his job, but there are bigger things out there, and if cricket isn't making you happy, maybe it's time to take some time away, and just find out what is making you upset, and how you get back on the right path.
"As a batsman, you have more bad days than you have good days, and it's pretty easy to slip into dark places if you let yourself.
"We're not judged on how good we look, or how well we're training – we're judged purely on our scores.
"That can be really difficult, especially if you miss out a couple of times and feel like you're fighting for your spot – that's a real strain on your mental psyche."
After a period of soul-searching, Silk took his mate's advice. He alerted Cricket Tasmania to his struggles and was met with understanding and strong support. A press release was issued, which revealed nothing more than the fact that he was taking some leave from the game for 'personal reasons', while in the meantime Silk and his partner, Shona, escaped to Noosa on Queensland's Sunshine Coast for a week.
"It wasn't until I was missing out on the tournament and watching the guys from afar that it hit home that what I was doing was pretty big, but I wanted to make it right before I came back," he says.
"I wanted to get more perspective outside of the bubble of professional cricket."
Silk skipped the one-day competition and returned home to regular catch-ups with Cricket Tasmania's then player development manager, Emma Harris, and a weekly appointment with a psychologist. It was agreed by all parties that the central theme underpinning his issues was a fear of sharing his anxieties or issues with those closest to him.
"It was about communication, and letting people know how I felt more," he says. "That was with family, with my girlfriend – I'd kept them out for way too long, and hadn't let them know how I was travelling.
"I was ashamed. I was like, I can't feel like this. And I didn't want to tell someone close to me that, because I almost didn't believe it myself.
"So once I was able to break that barrier down, and talk to people, it made my life a lot easier."
Silk struggled to fight his way back into the Shield side that summer, playing just three matches for a top score of 33. He had ventured back into the high-pressure world of professional sport, but deep down he knew something still wasn't right.
"Whether maybe that feeling continued for a while afterwards, and I just played through it, I'm not too sure, but it was certainly a struggle for a few years there where I battled for that love of the game," he says.
Three days after Christmas of 2017, Silk was at the Sydney Cricket Ground with the Sixers, who were preparing to face Adelaide Strikers. He had been overlooked for the first two matches of that Big Bash campaign and wasn't expecting to play this one, either. Then word got around that captain Moises Henriques was a late withdrawal from the match.
Silk was called up as Henriques' replacement, made 50 from 32 balls, and hasn't missed one of the Sixers' 22 matches since. A short time later he found out about the mental issues his skipper had been dealing with.
"We went and had a chat about it all a few days after that game," Silk says. "He let me in and explained to me what he was going through.
"I thought it was incredibly brave to see him like that. He was someone who'd had this really strong persona – and he still is a very strong character – but to see him have his walls broken down a bit, and let you into his world and how he was dealing with things, it was pretty eye-opening.
"A lot of what he was saying, I could relate to. Just not feeling good enough, and feeling worthless at times. And that pressure to perform, and not feeling up to it.
"They were all similar things to what I'd been feeling.
"I think a lot of the things I'm saying, other people can relate to. Mo's (problems) were probably on a deeper level than some others may be going through, but they're all similar issues.
"A lot of it is what you put on yourself. That's where mine came from – what I expected to be able to do. That's where the huge disappointment comes from.
"And then when you're not delivering, other external pressures can come on: Am I going to get picked for the next game? Will I have a contract at the end of the year?
"It can all build up and be pretty daunting.
"I'm incredibly proud of the way Moises has been able to speak about it, and help other guys, and I look at someone like Will Pucovski now, who is talking so openly about things, and I'm so inspired by someone being able to do that at that age."
Silk is sitting in his home on the eastern shore of Rosny, Hobart, with his girlfriend Shona and their dog, Tommy, a brown-and-white springer spaniel. They're just one bay around from Bellerive on the River Derwent, with views of the water and the Tasman Bridge, and the iconic Mt Wellington in the distance. His high-school sweetheart made the permanent move from Sydney early in 2018, and picked up a job locally as a primary school teacher. Silk feels sure Shona's arrival was influential in him overcoming his mental struggles.
"This might sound ordinary saying, but before Shona moved down, it just felt like a place to play cricket," he says. "Now it feels like my home. It's changed."
With the off-season in front of him, a trip with a group of mates to the spectacular twin golf courses at Barnbougle in north-eastern Tasmania is fast approaching on the calendar. He'll spend his 27th birthday there and feels the time has come for him to dispense some wisdom, while always continuing to receive it.
"I'm at the age now that someone like Alex (Doolan) was when I first came into the squad," he says. "The way he helped me out, I can do that for some of the younger guys now.
"At the time (I was struggling mentally), Shona was in Sydney, all my family was back in Sydney.
"I had people I was living with, that was all fine, but (Hobart) was just – a place where I felt lonely. And if I did have any success it just felt hard. I didn't have that strong support network around me.
"There are a lot of us in that boat, who move down without that support. As a player who's been here for a bit now you just expect them to be OK, but I think it's important to touch base more often.
"It's a unique sort of lifestyle, so I want to keep checking in because I think I can definitely pass on some things I've learned. I wouldn't recommend the way I did it, but I've learnt, and that's something I can add to other people's lives."
Almost seven years after it all began, Silk has come full circle. Across the summer, he formed an impressive opening partnership with his close mate Doolan in the Shield, in which he was the seventh-highest run-scorer through the regular season. In all three domestic competitions, he was one of only five players to be among the top 25 run-scorers.
He has also rediscovered his passion for the game, and as he eyes a future in their new house, alongside Shona and Tommy, he does so with a rediscovered eagerness.
"If there were any reservations about where I was going to finish up after cricket a few years ago I probably would've said I'd go back to Sydney, be close to family," he says, pondering.
"But yeah, maybe that's changed now."
If you or someone you know needs support, visit https://www.beyondblue.org.au/