“It was a gift for me when I got anxiety,” Liam Plunkett says calmly as if he is talking about a birthday present rather than the moment when he began to confront the stress and uncertainty which once plagued him.
“If I didn’t get anxiety I probably wouldn’t have played in the World Cup. Many of us define anxiety as a really bad thing – and for lots of people it is – but when I deal with anxiety it helps me massively in other areas of life.”
On Tuesday it will be a year since Plunkett was recalled to England’s World Cup side after they suffered a third defeat in the group stages. England had won the four group matches when Plunkett had played and lost all three when he was excluded. He returned to face India and took three of the five opposition wickets to fall, including that of the great Virat Kholi, and helped England secure the decisive victory that led to the semi-finals and winning a final that needed a super over to decide the outcome.
Plunkett took 11 wickets in the tournament, including three in the final. His dismissal of Kane Williamson continued his habit of removing the opposition’s best batsman. Quinton de Kock and Chris Gayle had also fallen to Plunkett in the group stages. All that success did not prevent him from being jettisoned when England picked their first post-World Cup one-day squad. After 124 internationals, across three formats, Plunkett was hurt not to have received a call to tell him the news.
Plunkett is 35 and, bolstered by his intention to play first-class cricket as long as possible, he is philosophical and interested in examining how he turned his past anxiety into a constructive process. “I was fortunate my anxiety didn’t happen on the cricket pitch in front of 50,000 people. It was always when I was facing a one-to-one situation. I know it affects different people in different ways but, for me, it really became a gift.”
At the time his panic attacks were distressing. “The first one happened when I was on a flight from Newcastle to Heathrow and then on to the US to see my wife. I had to get off the flight just before they closed the door. All of a sudden you’re sat in the plane and sweating. I really wanted to be with my wife but I couldn’t get over this massive hurdle of staying on that flight.”
A few years later Plunkett’s anxiety reached a debilitating pitch. “I’d had a few panic attacks but I was in a good place after joining Yorkshire from Durham [in 2013]. I was the fittest I’d ever been. In the winter I got a chance to fly to Adelaide where I’d played 10 years before – club cricket at Adelaide University. I took the first flight fine. I landed in Singapore or Hong Kong and had to get a connection. It felt like I couldn’t take a step into the boarding area.
“It’s like an invisible wall. Everything is foggy and I couldn’t get through this wall. It was only that I’d handed my passport in and didn’t have the correct visa which distracted my mind. I managed to get the visa and made the flight. But when I landed at Adelaide I didn’t have the courage to get in a car, or take a taxi to training.”
His anxiety escalated and he did not leave his room for eight days. “I wasn’t resting. I would eat at night, and during the day I’d keep myself locked up. It was pretty frightening because I’d not been through that before. I spoke to Tres [Marcus Trescothick the former England batsmen who had spoken bravely about depression] and he put me in contact with the PCA [Professional Cricketers’ Association].
“I spoke to someone in Adelaide for a couple of sessions. He helped me. I tried to eat healthy and train smart. I was treating my body with respect and it helped clear my mind. But it’s frightening the first time. I know people who can go spiralling down and it can be fatal for some. But I always know there is a way out. There’re always strategies and people to talk to.”
Plunkett has learned to control his anxiety. “I’m pretty good now. I know what triggers it and I don’t want to put myself out there within a few days of the trigger. I need time to recover.”
The fact Plunkett can talk openly about mental health is a positive sign of how far cricket has come since Trescothick revealed the stress-related condition that forced him to leave an Ashes tour in 2006 . “As a young cricketer I thought there must be something wrong back home with Tres. You’re like ‘Oh, that will never happen to me’. But I learnt anxiety is a tool you should use. I feel overcoming the anxiety has improved me 100% as a cricketer and as a person. It’s like practicing in the nets. Why would you not do that for your mind?”
Plunkett’s resilience has its roots in the strength of his parents. His mother has had cancer three times and his father had both a kidney and a liver transplant. “I appreciate that, mate,” he says when I and ask about their health in the current crises. “They’re good and I get my grit from my mum. She goes out for a 14-mile walk and so she’s the fittest she’s been in a long time. Recently I’ve been able to see my mum at a distance and I’m now doing personal training with her. It gives me practice [as a personal trainer].
“They’re incredible people. My old man had cysts that affected his organs. So he had both transplants. But they’re real strong and just cracked on with life. I’ve been a bit like mum and dad when I’ve hit roadblocks. I’ve always found a positive.
“When I struggled in cricket [with Plunkett’s international career being punctuated by spells in the wilderness] someone said: ‘This doesn’t define you.’ I was thinking if I don’t perform that makes me a crappy person and they said: ‘You can still be a good husband or brother or son.’ I thought: ‘I’d rather be a good one of them than a good cricketer.’”
In 2007 he offered his dad one of his kidneys as a potential donor. “He didn’t want none of it,” Plunkett says. “I was playing in the World Cup in the Caribbean and I offered it because he was struggling. But he’s in a decent place now.”
Plunkett’s desire to help others is evident in his commitment to the Player Resettlement Programme he has just launched with Chris Peel of The Training Room – a company that educates people through health and fitness. The PRP offers courses in personal training, IT, education and events management to professional sports people so they can forge alternative careers in retirement.
“I jumped at the chance,” Plunkett says. “because people in professional sport have such transferable skills. We want to help them think about using those skills to find new career paths. That question of ‘What next?’ can be a tough one but it can also be exciting. Cricket’s been a massive part of my life the last 16 years. While I’m still performing, and helping win games, I want to play as long as possible. But just because cricket stops one day doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about another role – like the PRP.”
Plunkett and his World Cup-winning teammates enjoyed an all-day session on Zoom while last year’s thrilling final was screened again on television. “It was very cool. I’d recorded my bowling and watched that thousands of times but I’d not watched the full thing. People were coming in and out of the Zoom session all day and we had a couple of beers and a good chat. It was fun to relive that memory together – as a band of brothers who won the World Cup. Not many groups do that.”
They needed some hard meetings during the tournament when England were on the brink of elimination. “There was a big one at Edgbaston. Everyone got to vent. I wasn’t in the team at that point and I said: ‘I’m pissed off I’m not playing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want people to do well.’ I was dropped after performing well but there were lots of games and I accepted it. I said: ‘I’m not going to sit like a moody little kid in the corner. That’s poison for the dressing room.’ It cleared the air and helped us go in the right direction.”
The night before the final he felt “fairly laid-back. You do have nerves but I’d had a lot of bumps in my international career and even lost the  T20 World Cup final. I wanted to enjoy this one. I knew it could be the last chance to play in a World Cup, the last chance to play for England.
“On the day, when I started bowling down the hill as first change, I was a bit nervous and struggled to get my length. But after a few overs I came back from the other end and bowled nicely [taking three for 42]. Even during the super over I wanted the ball to come my way. You could take a blinding catch to win the World Cup.”
His teammates shared that positivity and, with some good fortune, England became world champions amid excruciating tension. “I was so proud to win with that bunch of boys. Everything was buzzing afterwards in the dressing room. I sat down to take my boots off and that wave of emotion hit me. I started to sob tears of joy.”
Different emotions, pinned down by disappointment, were felt a few months later when Plunkett discovered on social media he had been dropped. “I think that’s what it is,” he says of the hurt caused by the inexplicable decision not to tell him personally.
“I appreciate it’s sport, at the highest level, and new people are always coming in but do I still think I’m good enough to play for England? Of course. But that ship has sailed and I’m not a person to hold grudges. I’m trying to get on with the next thing at Surrey.”
Plunkett has floated the idea of playing for USA in a World Cup, as he and his American wife may settle in the States, but he sounds philosophical. “I want to play for as long as I can for Surrey. Hopefully that’s another three years. Then it’s three years to qualify for the US. I might not even get into their team and I think I’d prefer to develop as a coach.”
All the ghosts of the anxious past seem a long way away. The future looks a lighter place as Plunkett laughs. “But who knows?” he says wryly. “I might still be flying in at 42.”
For further information on the Player Resettlement Programme email firstname.lastname@example.org