Australia opener Nicole Bolton has spoken about her battle with mental health following her return to action after a five-month break and said if it hadn't been for stepping away from the game she may have been forced to retire.
When Bolton started her indefinite break in the middle of the fourth edition of the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) in January, citing personal reasons, an air of concern hung over her withdrawal. It wasn't, after all, a drop in form that had triggered the decision; she had just smashed a fifty for the Scorchers against Sydney Thunder and picked up 2 for 26. However, that Player-of-the-Match performance also brought the curtain down on Bolton's season.
More than five months on from the start of that hiatus from competitive cricket - she was unavailable for selection for the three-match home ODI series against New Zealand in February - which ended with a recall to Australia's Ashes squad, Bolton revealed that her pull-out had been down to "alarm bells" around her mental well-being that nearly forced her to consider retirement.
"Personally a few things happened to me away from cricket which was a bit of a challenge in itself," Bolton told Fox Cricket. "There is still a lot of stigma around mental health, depression and anxiety. I don't think I'd be sitting here talking to you if I didn't take a break. I potentially would have retired to be honest."
"It was what people couldn't see behind closed doors where I was really struggling. Physically my body started to fail me in a sense. It was like alarm bells because I was like 'this isn't normal'."
A battle that has been faced by some of Bolton's top-flight competitors such as England's Sarah Taylor and Kate Cross, posed her a similar challenge: to speak up. And Bolton admitted she "wasn't completely honest" with the Perth Scorchers team doctor, to whom she had only described symptoms of potential burnout.
"I was almost covering up how I was really feeling," Bolton said. "I didn't want to rush it. It was something I knew that if I was going to take the time off, I had to do it properly. If that meant never coming back to play for Australia, then that's what it meant."
During her time away from the game, Bolton found a confidant in the Australia and New South Wales men's allrounder Moises Henriques, who had taken leave from the Big Bash League in late-December 2017 due to mental-health reasons.
"He doesn't know the role that he's played, but it's unbelievable really," Bolton said of Henriques, who would try to lift her with words of encouragement on WhatsApp.
At the time, Bolton's decision to step away from the game was met with support by her club and national team-mates, including the likes of Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry.
"You speak to anyone around the country in women's cricket and she would have had an impact on them in some way or another," Perry, the Sydney Sixers captain had said. "She's a great mate of mine and I know she's got a huge amount of support from everyone. She won't be a stranger, that's for sure."
Bolton's Scorchers and Australia captain, Lanning, echoed Perry. "It's a family at the Scorchers and we're right behind her," Lanning said. "She knows that so hopefully she can get into a good spot and we'll see what happens from there."
The support from her colleagues has been palpable since her return to the Australia squad for the multi-format seven-match Ashes, which starts next month and will kick off a busy international season that includes a tour of Sri Lanka in September, a tri-series involving England and India in January next year, leading up to the home T20 World Cup in February-March. There's also the first standalone WBBL, running from October to December, on the domestic calendar.
"Coming back into the squad, they were just rapt and even the staff were pumped," Bolton said. "I never once felt alone, I knew I had the support I just needed a bit of help to get there. To be picked to play for Australia again I think is a massive achievement.
"You get so caught up in the pressure and expectations and it can just grind away at you. Now I feel like I've got other things going on in my life that if cricket is not going well, well it's okay. In time, I hope I can share my experience and maybe help someone else. It was an important time in my life and I'm glad I've been able to come through it."