Testing times

Testing times

Kersi Meher-Homji

In the last 60 years, spectators have witnessed near fatalities on the cricket field Kersi Meher-Homji

During the tour of the West Indies in 1962, India’s 28-year-old cricket captain Nari Contractor received a near fatal injury from an extra quick short delivery from Charlie “Chucker” Griffith in the match against Barbados. Many of the players donated blood to save his life. Two operations were performed in the West Indies and one later in India when a steel plate was inserted inside the injured skull. A year later he played first-class matches but his Test career was cruelly aborted. Near death in 1962, Contractor is still with us 59 years later, aged 87.

March 17, 1962 was one of the most shocking days in the history of cricket, the day Contractor nearly died on the pitch at Kensington Oval, Bridgetown. The cricket world held its breath in suspense as he hovered between life and death for five days.
Contractor’s near tragedy was remembered by cricket lovers globally when Australia’s Test cricketer Phillip Hughes died at the age of 25 on November 27, 2014. This plunged the cricket world in grief. Hughes was too young, too talented and too lovable to die. While batting, he had been hit on his helmeted head by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

  Nari Contractor: back from the brink of death

 A country lad, Hughes bore physical and statistical resemblance to Australia’s cricket legend Doug Walters. Both had scored two centuries in their first two Tests in 1965-66 and 2009, respectively. Ups and downs, downs and ups were the features of Hughes’ short international career as he was in and out of the Australian Test teams. He had many exciting and frustrating moments at all levels of the game but he took it all smilingly. That cheeky smile and never-say-die spirit made up his persona.On Hughes’ tragedy Contractor commented in 2014, “I never thought something like this could happen now with the advent of helmets.”

There are many instances of fatalities and near fatalities in cricket which could fill up a book. So for this article I have restricted myself to only those instances after 1962.
The following heart-stopping incident happened 40 years ago but I remember it as if it was last week. On the first day of the first Test between Australia and India on January 2, 1981, the Australian pace battery of Dennis Lillee, Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg reduced India to a pathetic five wickets down for 78 runs. The only batsman to offer some resistance was the elegant stroke player Sandeep Patil. He was batting confidently at 65 when a bouncer from Pascoe hit him on his non-helmeted head and rendered him unconscious. For a frightening few minutes he did not move a muscle and the commentators feared the worst. Carried to the hospital on a stretcher, gutsy Patil survived. Amid cheers he came out to bat in the second innings. He went on to play an incandescent innings of 174 runs (including a sixer and 22 fours) three weeks later in the following Test in Adelaide.

Australia’s Graeme Watson was struck flush on the jaw by an accidental beamer from Tony Greig during a Rest of the World international in Melbourne in January 1972. Playing for the World XI, Farokh Engineer was the first to come to his rescue. The impact broke Watson’s nose and his clothing and pads were stained bloody red. The damaged artery led to his requiring 20 liters of blood transfusions at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. He was on the critical list for a week. Hospitalized for a month and advised by doctors not to play high level sports again, he was included in Western Australia’s XI a fortnight later and toured England five months after that.

  L-r, top row: Phillip Hughes, Graeme Watson, Sandeep Patil, Ewen Chatfield, Anshuman Gaekwad;

  2nd row: Gundappa Viswanath, Brijesh Patel, Anil Kumble, Rick Darling, Raman Lamba

Then there was the horrifying experience of New Zealand fast-medium bowler Ewen Chatfield. He had an unforgettable Test debut against England at Auckland on February 25, 1975 but for the wrong reasons. After a stubborn innings batting at number 11, he was struck on the temple by England’s fast bowler Peter Lever. He collapsed unconscious with a hairline fracture of the skull. His heart stopped beating and he swallowed his tongue. Only on-field mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage by England’s physiotherapist Bernard Thomas saved his life. Chatfield was then rushed to hospital and regained consciousness an hour later. He was recalled in 1976-77, when he bowled steadily. Later on, he was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to cricket.

When Anshuman Gaekwad was hit by West Indies express fast bowler Michael Holding at Sabina Park in April 1976, his first thought was Contractor’s gruesome injury at Bridgetown in 1962. Three Indian batsmen were severely injured during the above Test; Gundappa Viswanath was dismissed by a ball that fractured and dislocated his right middle finger, Brijesh Patel had three stitches sutured in a cut inside his mouth and Gaekwad (who had scored 81 runs as an opening batsman) was struck on the left ear and spent three days in hospital. Skipper Bishan Singh Bedi was forced to declare the innings closed at six wickets for 306. India had only six fit players to bat in the second innings. It was a diabolical match for India.

India’s famous leg-spinner Anil Kumble was a bandaged hero. During the St John’s Test against the West Indies in May 2002, a blow from fast bowler Mervyn Dillon left him spitting blood on the pitch but he kept batting for four overs. Refusing to fly home for surgery he came on the field, his head sheathed in bandages like a warrior’s. Despite a broken jaw he bowled 14 consecutive overs and dismissed Brian Lara, the star West Indian batsman.

Kumble’s gallantry reminded cricket lovers of Australia’s opening batsman Rick McCosker. In the Centenary Test against England at Melbourne on March 9, 1977, McCosker’s jaw was broken by speedster Bob Willis. Despite this, the Australian came out to bat in the second innings at number10, looking like an astronaut walking in space — his jaw wired, his face swollen and bandaged. He batted for over an hour, adding 54 runs. This enabled Australia to win by 45 runs.

The fifth Test between Australia and England on January 27, 1979 at Adelaide is remembered for a frightful on-field accident to Australian opening batsman Rick Darling. The home team was jubilant having dismissed England for 169 runs on the first day. But their joy was short-lived as Darling was hit under the heart by speedster Willis’s fifth ball of the first over before a run was scored. Knocked out, he was carried unconscious from the field on a stretcher. Prompt cardiac pulmonary resuscitation by opponent John Emburey and umpire Max O’Connell saved his life. Daring Darling resumed his innings the next morning.

Former Indian Test cricketer Raman Lamba was not that lucky. Aged 38, he suffered a similar brain injury by Hughes after being hit on the head while fielding a short-pitched ball during a club match at Dhaka in Bangladesh in 1998. Like Hughes, Lamba was making his comeback to Test cricket. Lamba had declined to wear a helmet during the match. He passed away three days later. Lamba had played four Tests and 32 One-Day Internationals for India. What a tragedy. A decade later his wife Kim told media there is no way to truly recover from his death, as the “scars are too deep and the vacuum too vast.” 

How lucky that Contractor survived. Before migrating to Australia in 1970 I had the pleasure of interviewing him at his home in Bombay. He was friendly as I discussed with him his other earlier ghastly injury on the cricket field. In the second Test against England at Lord’s on June 18, 1959, he was hit by a rising ball from fast bowler Brian Statham and fell to the ground in agony. But he gritted his teeth and continued batting, scoring a plucky 81. Wrote Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 1960: “Courage was his greatest attribute, as he showed in the Lord’s Test when he was suffering from a cracked rib.”

Courage and Contractor are synonymous. After these two hairsbreadth escapes, any cricketer would have called it a day. But not Contractor. He took up the bat a year after the Bridgetown 1962 near-death experience and scored 2,535 runs in 44 matches for Gujarat in Ranji Trophy and for West Zone in Duleep Trophy from 1963 to 1970, hitting five centuries. His great contribution to cricket was recognized by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) when he was made Honorary Life Member in 1969. By his grit and determination he has shown a spirit that won universal acclaim.


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