The Killing Fields

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

“With a cricket ball as the missile, anything can happen, and that’s what makes it such a compelling and potentially dangerous game.”

Rob Bagchi, The Guardian

Nobody is sure how Frederick Louis, the prince of Wales, died. The eldest son of King George II and Queen Caroline of England is believed to have died from an injury when he was struck by a cricket ball in 1751.

But, we are sure of how Phillip Joel Hughes died on 27 November.

Unlike Hughes, considered a darling in sports-mad Australia, Frederick was disliked by his own parents. While the king wondered whether Frederick was his son or a changeling, the queen had many a time wished “the ground would open this moment and sink the monster to the lowest hole in hell”.

The prince, who had captained Surrey for many seasons, reportedly died on a cold March evening, bleeding after the abscess of the injury burst.

The death of the 44-year-old royal heir may have been a relief to his parents, but when 24-year-old Hughes slipped into death at a Sydney hospital, there wasn’t a pair of dry eyes in the country.

If Frederick “looked like a frog”, Hughes was charm personified. His mate and Australian captain Michael Clarke says that he has never come across a better human being during his playing years.

The awkward left-hander with frugal footwork was tipped to play a long innings for his country. The boy from the banana farm was considered a 100-Test bloke. He was the apple of the Aussie eyes — someone so precociously talented and young that they had dared to draw parallels with Don Bradman.

But he didn’t. He just walked away, like he had often slipped away from home to his father’s farm.

Prophetic After a nasty injury while facing the likes of Malcolm Marshall in 1986, Mike Gatting predicted that rash bowling could lead to death
Prophetic After a nasty injury while facing the likes of Malcolm Marshall in 1986, Mike Gatting predicted that rash bowling could lead to death

Unlike the legendary Jeff ‘Thommo’ Thomson, Sean Abbott did not relish hearing the sound of batsmen’s crushing skull bones. He was just teasing, probing Hughes’ well-publicised Achilles’ heel — the short-pitched ball. He thought, just like Hughes, that the ball would whistle past his ears.

It didn’t.

Former England captain Mike Gatting was prophetic when he complained about a bouncer in 1986. A British tabloid ran a story after West Indies paceman Malcolm Marshall broke Gatting’s nose at Sabina Park, Jamaica, with a grim headline of what the batsman had said before he left the Caribbean island with “the most photographed” nose: “Someone will be killed one day.” The intro ran like this: “Mike Gatting flew home yesterday wondering when somebody will be killed playing Test cricket.”

A few years ago in Dubai, I asked Gatting about the incident. After taking me through that nasty Marshall snorter, he recalled, “There were pieces of my bone on the ball. I was lucky to be alive.”

Young Hughes was not.

Bloody, Dangerous Game

Hurled at a speed of 140km/h, a cricket ball is as deadly as the biblical slingshot that killed a heavily-armoured Goliath. David hit him with a beamer right through the tiny chink of the helmet and felled the giant of a soldier.

Made of hard cork and leather and weighing between 155 and 163 gm a cricket ball could kill a person, as it did Hughes at the Sydney Cricket Ground and sent a sporting nation deep into mourning.

With all the fun and frolic, bouncing cheerleaders and post-match booze parties and millions of dollars, we often tend to forget that cricket is a bloody and dangerous game.

True, time has proven that cricket could be a breeding ground for cheats, frauds and greedy businessmen. But bravery, bruises and bloodletting have always been there — right from the days when the game was played on pitches as rough and patchy as a bad haircut.

Cricket has never been a game for the chicken-hearted. And Hughes, despite his crusty technique, was no rabbit with the bat. Right from his boyhood, he had impressed coaches with his talent. Though he was no David Hookes against the Caribbean pace battery or Viv Richards against the Aussie trio of Thommo, Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe, he was no weak-kneed lad. He had the chutzpah to spank the South Africans for centuries in each innings of a Test. He was full of energy and was about to pry open the door to the national team.

Meanwhile, his buddy and former teammate Abbott might never bend his back again. As Waqar Younis said, it may not be easy for the 22-year-old fast bowler. The injury was freakish as the ball hit behind Hughes’ left ear, causing a hemorrhage across the nation, leaving the cricketing world in tears.

Sport is fraught with risk. In the case of cricket, the ball used can be as deadly as a bullet. Way back in 1870, 25-year-old Nottinghamshire batsman George Summers died after he was hit on the head at Lord’s.

Former Indian opener Raman Lamba’s tragic death in 1998 sent shockwaves through the fans. Lamba was killed after he was hit on the head while fielding at short-leg in a Dhaka league match. Called in to field at close in the middle of an over, Lamba did not wear a helmet as there were “just three more balls” left in the over.

Former West Indian captain Brian Lara, who had been knocked down a couple of times, said that a little prayer would help you stay in the game. “It is a sport and you are always going to have that element of risk,” he said. “This (Hughes’ death) is an unfortunate and rare situation. I suppose the authorities will be a little bit worried about something like this, how it happened and if it will ever happen again. I felt pretty safe playing. I knew the element of risk. A little prayer in the morning and hope for the best. I have been struck down a couple of times — by Shoaib Akhtar and Glenn McGrath — but fortunately for me, it hasn’t been at this level.”

Though there were incidents of injuries and liquid pace bowling before the 1930s, cricket was never the same after the infamous Bodyline series between England and Australia in 1932-33.

Under the shrewd captaincy of Douglas Jardine and with the help of bowlers such as Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, the England team wreaked havoc and fear in the hearts of all cricketers Down Under and beyond.

It was perhaps after the Bodyline series that fast bowlers had seriously began to blow rather than just bowl. Played on uncovered pitches until the 1960s, cricket had tested the skills and reflexes of a batsman before the introduction of protective gear. A trifle late to react, you were left bleeding all over your face, and sometimes you had to be carried out of the field. If you were lucky, you would play again.

As former West Indian opener Gordon Greenidge would later say in the popular documentary Fire in Babylon about the 1975 tour of Australia, “It was a war out there.”

Yes, you get killed in a war. As the Aussie pacemen ran in to bowl, the grounds resonated with screams of “kill, kill, kill”. They were not just bowling fast, they were bowling to inflict pain, said Greenidge’s opening partner Desmond Haynes. Lillee, Thommo and Pascoe bowled to kill. Watching the old footage, one wonders why do cricket fans get so excited and thrilled at the prospect of someone getting killed out there?

Former Indian captain Nari Contractor was nearly killed during the West Indies tour of 1962 when a Charles Griffith special fractured the left-hander’s skull. He underwent a series of surgeries and had a steel plate inserted in his head. The 28-year-old never played again.

Among the Indian batsmen who braved the pace battery with aplomb and guts were Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath. While Gavaskar, like Richards, never wore a helmet and still took on the fearsome West Indians, Amarnath was a “happy hooker” who was the most bruised by the fast bowlers of the day.

About Amarnath, Rob Bagchi wrote in The Guardian: “Richard Hadlee fractured his skull, Imran Khan knocked him unconscious, Malcolm Marshall dislodged his teeth, Thomson cracked his jaw and Michael Holding sent him to hospital to have stitches put in his head.” Such was his guts and the attitude of the fast bowlers then that when Amarnath returned to the crease after stitches in his head, Holding welcomed him with a bouncer, but the Indian hooked it for a six!

In a double whammy for the game, just a few days after Hughes’ tragic demise, an Israeli umpire was killed by a cricket ball. In Ashdod, former national captain and now an umpire, Hillel Oscar, was hit by a ball that ricocheted from the stumps at his end of the pitch.

Remember Lillee’s famous words about Sachin Tendulkar that bowlers need helmets due to the brute power of his shots? Now, even umpires should wear protective gear because the game is so dangerous.

During a Test match against England in 1975, New Zealand’s Ewen Chatfield swallowed his tongue and stopped breathing after being hit on the temple by fast bowler Peter Lever. Chatfield’s life was saved on the pitch by England physio Bernard Thomas’ timely intervention.

Fast and the Furious

Shocking end Raman Lamba succumbed on the field in 1998
Shocking end Raman Lamba succumbed on the field in 1998

For the older generations, cricket had a touch of romance, especially the brand of game played in the 1970s and ’80s. It was then that we heard tales about the pace battery and saw a real bombardment from fast bowlers against a breed of free-spirited, brave batsmen. While the Australians had the Lille-Thommo-Pascoe combination, the West Indies had the fearsome pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Colin Croft, followed by Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Winston Davis.

Among the more recent bowlers who worked up good pace that could kill a batsman are Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Alan Donald, Shaun Tait, Shane Bond, Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson, Lasith Malinga, Mohammad Sami etc. Bowling on lightning pitches, like the one in Perth, these bowlers can actually kill a batsman.

“As an opener, I am on the receiving end of a hard, red missile bowled at me at speeds of 90-100 miles an hour,” Greenidge remarked once.

Back then, cricket was played like going out to the battlefield. Anything could happen as the fast bowlers worked up lethal pace against batsmen who were funnily equipped — with gear like Dennis Amiss’ pioneering customised motorcycle helmet and the skull caps worn by players such as Gavaskar and Mike Brearley, who argued that protecting one’s genitals was not as important as guarding one’s brains.

Even though the number of lethal fast bowlers today is not as many as in those days, a 130km/h delivery aimed at the brain could prove fatal as it did to Hughes. And, that is why cricket is such a dangerous and potentially deadly game.

But, of late, it has become a game of just glamour and riches. With the advent of the Indian Premier League, cricketers have become millionaires, and we overlook the dangers of the game as we are blinded by the dazzles of its add-ons. Somewhere along the way, the game has lost its romance.

Broken limbs and fingers, bloody noses, cut lips and bruised bodies are not an uncommon sight on a cricket pitch. But the most danger lurks in low-grade matches where the game is played without appropriate protective gear. If you go around the rural areas of the country, you could find cricket matches being played on cobble-stoned pitches with unpredictable bounce, with batsmen and close-in fielders going about their routine without proper protective gear. They all are just one hit away from a potentially fatal injury.

If you stand still for a few moments by a Test match ground and listen, you could hear the creaking of broken bones and groans of batsmen wriggling in physical pain. If you linger, you could get a raw whiff of blood spluttered on the blades of grass mixed with sweat. If you stay for a while, you could perhaps pick up the heavy breathing of frightened batsmen eddying around… cricket is a bloody, dangerous game.

A cricket ball could kill — be it a hated prince or a beloved farm boy. A cricket ball is a deadly weapon. And we will continue to play without a second thought.

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1 COMMENT

  1. This is very very sad and as Gatting once feared that ‘one day someone will be killed’; it finally did. As a matter of fact, one must not forget that cricket which is played in white clothes (I mean the real cricket, test cricxket that is) and in apparent civil conditions where someone throws a rock like ball at 100+ km/hr speed at a guy standing at the other end called batsman, with the preferred intention of crushing his skull is what British, the inventor of the game, are – superfially genteel but fundamentally vicious!

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