Steve Smith’s biggest call yet
DESPITE not having worn the baggy green in over seven months, Steve Smith's face has been plastered on news sites around the country this week as the deep dive into what's wrong with Australian cricket unearthed some confronting truths.
The independent cultural review into Cricket Australia commissioned after the ball tampering scandal in South Africa found a toxic culture of arrogance and bullying and heaped as much blame on administrators as the players for the cheating controversy that erupted in Cape Town.
The Australian Cricketers Association and a raft of former players have called for Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft to have their lengthy bans lifted. Plenty of Australians would love to see Smith back at the crease - especially given the national team's dismal recent showings against Pakistan in the UAE - but the reality is he's performing an even greater service to his country without bat in hand.
NATIONAL 24/7 CRISIS SERVICES
Determined to spend his 12-month suspension from state and international cricket wisely, Smith partnered with Gotcha4Life, a charity that aims to raise awareness of the importance of men's mental health Down Under.
It's hugely important work considering suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian men aged 15 to 44. Men are three times more likely than women to self-harm and three times more likely to take their own lives.
Six Australian men take their lives each day and shockingly, the number of suicides overall increased by nine per cent from 2016 to 2017. The founder of Gotcha4Life, Triple M Grill Team co-host Gus Worland, reached out to Smith about partnering with the organisation during his time away from the field and said on radio earlier this year the cricketer was "shocked" to learn of the high suicide rate.
Along with Worland, Smith has been visiting high schools where he talks about his experiences since the ball tampering scandal. On the road to redemption after being cast as a national villain, Smith is better placed than most to explore the mental demons that can affect anyone, even the best cricketer in the world.
"After speaking with Gus and chatting about what I went through in the days following the Cape Town Test match I felt if my story could help even one student out there then it would be worth it," Smith told news.com.au.
"We talk about having your mates that you muck around with but how important it is that you have someone that you can be open and honest with."
Last week Smith visited Parramatta Marist High School in Sydney's west where he was a huge hit with the students, according to PDHPE teacher Luke Barry-Donnellan.
"He talked about what happened in South Africa and the aftermath and he said he was in tears for four days," Mr Barry-Donnellan told news.com.au. "He echoed the sentiment that it was so important to have a great support network around you and to have your mates and he had his wife, he had his father and his mother all with him.
"He said he doesn't know if he would have been able to get out of it if he didn't have those people around him.
"That message to say even the greatest need a great support network around them - you can't do it by yourself - it's so important to have your family and your friends and someone you can turn to when you're not doing well, and having that sort of relationship with your friends, is really important."
Smith's visit carried extra relevance for the boys at Parramatta Marist because of the innovative way the school is tackling the issue of men's mental health. After watching Worland's three-part documentary series Man Up, which explores how masculinity is perceived in Australia and why men are taking their own lives, Mr Barry-Donnellan launched an initiative that challenged Year 9 students to confront how they can redefine what it means to "man up" today.
Last year Mr Barry-Donnellan reached out to Worland, who agreed to speak at the school, and also got Tomorrow Man - an organisation that aims to challenge stereotypes about what it means to be a man - to come in and run workshops which he says have been incredibly successful in bringing students closer together and encouraging them to be more open with each other about their feelings.
At the core of Parramatta Marist's own "Man Up" campaign - which runs for about six weeks - is a focus on young men realising they don't need to adhere to the masculine stereotypes of previous generations and that it's OK to be vulnerable. It's why Smith's school visits are so important.
The former Aussie skipper won admirers the world over during an emotional press conference after flying home from South Africa where his raw honesty touched all who watched it. A grown man with, as folklore goes, the most important job in the country after the prime minister, breaking down in tears, admitting he'd made a mistake and vowing to win back the public's respect was more memorable than any hundred he's ever scored.
"I replayed the interview to my Year 9 group and they were quite taken aback by it," Mr Barry-Donnellan said. "When they saw him in the press conference they thought, 'Geez, this is a lot coming out.' The whole assembly was in awe of him at the time and hearing him be so open about it, because it's such a damning event, was fantastic.
"It gives them a bit of comfort to go, 'You know what, I will make mistakes but looking at this person, I can bounce back and I can do this.' Steve Smith and what he's gone through - he made a huge error - but to come out and share that with schools and students to say, 'I made a mistake but I'm doing what I can to make it right and I'm taking these small steps. I know I'm not quite there yet but I'm on my way' is such a refreshing message for kids.
"It's great to see someone of his calibre and see him bounce back and see him on the road to redemption after that. It's really refreshing for kids to see."
Mental health can be a curly topic for anyone to address, let alone teenagers in the transition from boyhood to manhood. It's why visits from people like Worland and Smith and the interactive workshops by Tomorrow Man are so crucial in keeping students engaged.
As part of the "Man Up" program, students at Parramatta Marist created radio segments where they discussed the importance of mental health and also came up with the concept of a "Broughnut Day", where they were encouraged to buy and share a doughnut - and a conversation - with someone else. The 900 doughnuts ordered from Donut King this year sold out in minutes.
Mr Barry-Donnellan has seen a change in students since the introduction of "Man Up", saying it's been "pretty powerful" to see them become more comfortable in being honest with each other, even if he admits it might take a few years for the full impact of the program to come to light.
The experience is certainly a different one for Smith, who has found himself outside the bubble of the Australian cricket team for the first time in a long time. He's used to hearing the cheers when he raises his bat after scoring a century but just because he may never see first-hand the results of his latest efforts, it doesn't mean they are any less appreciated.
"The mystery around mental health is you may have helped someone but you don't know," Mr Barry-Donnellan said. "The importance of this project is about planting a seed at this critical time when the kids are just starting to get it and know what looking after your mental health actually is.
"It's about providing them with the knowledge and skills of having that support network. I'd like to think in three to four years that when they are starting to feel some of the pressures (of school and life after school) that they will feel comfortable in reaching out to someone for help or talking to their mates about something. That's the most important part about it.
"Hopefully we can save a few lives."
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.
Find out more about the work of Gotcha4Life by visiting gotcha4life.org.