The Achilles factor in cricket
As India's ace fast bowler, Javagal Srinath, prepared to fly home from the Caribbean with a shoulder problem, my memory went back to the early 1980s when a tall, lithe, blond
English cricketer was hurling his thunderbolts much to the discomfiture
of batsmen all over the world.
He was the Kent and England fast
bowler Graham Dilley, who was expected to play a leading role
in the resurgence of English cricket in the 1980s. Some weeks
back, I read in a newspaper that Dilley was without money, without
a job and prepared to do 'anything' to support his family. A professional
from his teens, Dilley had neither the education nor the experience
for any kind of job. Cricket was bread, butter and jam for him.
What then went wrong? Trying to bowl fast, Dilley hurt his back badly.
He had several operations, and screws were inserted into various
joints in his back. For months together, his back was encased
in plaster. But the injuries were too serious for even the best
medical treatment to do much good, and Dilley had to quit the game he
loved and depended for a living.
In his late 20's, Dilley was
a candidate for the dole. Around the same time, another well established
English medium fast bowler, Neil Foster of Essex, also retired
from the game because he was troubled by a bad back. Foster was
one of the few English seam bowlers who was successful in India,
having taken a handful of wickets during the visit of David Gower's
team in 1984-85.
I can only hope that the overworked right shoulder of Srinath
does not put him in a predicament similar to that of Dilley. Of
course, Srinath is educated, has a degree in Engineering and can
make a living away from cricket. But an untimely exit would be
a cruel blow for this dedicated cricketer who had only recently
become the spearhead of the Indian attack and joined the ranks
of the world's outstanding fast bowlers.
In one of my recent articles, I had referred to the fact that
by and large, Indian cricketers were less injury prone than say,
the Australians, Pakistanis and West Indians. During the recently
concluded triangular one-day series Down Under there were occasions
when all the three teams were hard put to field eleven fit players!
Despite being labelled 'unathletic', Indian players suffered from
fewer injuries. Kapil Dev, despite the enormous workload he carried,
seldom missed a match in his illustrious career. Same was the case with Sunil
It must be devastating for an international cricketer to have
his career cut short by injury. Today, despite the increasing
stress on fitness and the presence of qualified physiotherapists
with every team, players are more injury prone than before. This
could be because of the tremendous amount of cricket they play
round the year. One-day cricket, no doubt, did bring about more
awareness about fitness. But it also led to more injuries as players
were expected to dive, roll and perform other acrobatic feats
on the field.
Cricketers who suffered major injuries could be classified into
three categories. For instance, Dilley could not continue in the
game when he was in his prime. So was the case with former Australian
allrounder Ron Archer, who was confidently expected to carry on
from Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. Archer performed splendidly
during the 1956 Australian tour of England. But his knee gave
way after the tour and he never played first class cricket again.
His compatriot, Alan Davidson, was luckier despite the fact that
during the early part of his career he spent more time on the
massage table than on the field. 'Davo' suffered every kind of
injury, real or imaginary, and often had to be pushed by his captain,
Richie Benaud, to take his place in the team. Making his debut
in 1953, Davidson came into his own only from the South African
tour of 1958 and did not look back afterwards, finishing with
170 wickets in 44 tests matches.
Jamaican Lawrence Rowe had his career blighted by injury. West
Indian fast bowler Malcolm Marshall rated Rowe higher than the
mighty Viv Richards. Rowe, who began his career sensationally
with a double century and a century in a Test match against England
in the Caribbean in 1973, was afflicted with all kinds of injuries.
His eyes troubled him when he came to India with Clive Lloyd's
team in 1974. Then it was the turn of his knees and shoulder.
Finally, the selectors could not risk selecting him and Rowe chose
to lead the 'rebel' West Indians to South Africa and was lost
to international cricket.
Martin Crowe, the great New Zealander, suffered the same fate
as Rowe. On his last tour of England in 1994, he batted on practically
one leg and still scored two centuries in the three-match series.
Crowe, who was the batting sensation of the 1992 World Cup, was
a lovely strokemaker, a complete batsman who handled pace and
spin bowlers with equal contempt. But fate willed that Crowe be
lost to New Zealand and world cricket. He had several operations
on his right knee which finally could not take any more punishment.
He did play in India in 1995. The old magic was there, but the
feet would not move.
Like Martin Crowe, former Middlesex and England
batting star, Denis Compton always complained of a wonky knee,
the legacy of playing football for Arsenal. Yet Compton continued
to dazzle crowds all over, though his knee flared up during the
Australian tour of 1950-51. ''I took so many tablets to kill the
pain that I began to resemble one," joked Compton, who failed
dismally with the bat during the tour. With Compton fit, England
could have won the closely-fought series.
Indian allrounder Ravi Shastri was also the victim of a knee ailment,
though by the time the injury began worrying him, he was often
out of form and found it difficult to retain his place in the
Indian team. The South Africans and the Australians found several
chinks in his armour and deprived him of his favourite glide to leg
by attacking the offstump. Shashtri was rendered strokeless
both in Tests and one-dayers, where he seldom rotated the strike
to enable his free scoring partner Srikkanth to have more of the
bowling. Shastri also would not listen to the selectors' plea
that he bowl more. Finally at the age of 31, Shastri could not
take it any more and quit the game.
Cricket is also full of inspiring stories where young men, crippled
by injuries, fought hard and came back to the game. The prime
example of course, was Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillee who
suffered a stress fracture of the back during the West Indies
tour of 1973. Many doctors advised Lillee that he had no future
in the game. But the West Australian star had other ideas. Working
under the guidance of a Sydney physio, Lillee, whose back was in
plaster for more than three months, gradually worked his way to
complete fitness and was back in the game. Lillee was intelligent
enough to know that he could not bowl fast all the time. He learnt
to cut down his runup, added variety to his bowling and went on
to become Australia's leading wicket taker. Strangely enough,
his fast bowling partner Jeff Thomson suffered serious injury
when he collided with another Australian player, opening batsman
Turner, while attempting to take a catch offered by Pakistani
batsman Zaheer Abbas. Thommo's right shoulder joint was broken
and his career was in jeopardy. Like Lillee, he fought back but
could not regain his full pace. Yet, he was able to play for another
four or five years and took 202 wickets in test matches.
Stress fractures of the back and legs, groin muscle injuries,
pulled hamstring, sore shoulders and shin injuries - these were the major
hazards to professional cricketers. West Indian Clive Lloyd, while
playing for the Rest of the World against Australia in Australia
in 1971-72, hurt his back badly while diving to stop a shot at
the covers. At that time, Lloyd was the best fieldsman in the
world. There were doubts if Lloyd would ever play international
cricket again. But Super Cat, as he was known, came back to the game in a remarkably
quick time after being treated by Australian doctors and became
the most famous and successful captain in modern times. His batting
improved dramatically under the stress of captaincy. But he no
longer patrolled the covers. Instead he moved over to first slip
where he pouched catch after catch.
The Pakistanis are one of the major injury-prone cricketers of
the modern era. And it was always their star players who were
either injured or indisposed. Poor Saeed Anwar! Reckoned by many
as the best opener in the world, Anwar could not be with his team
in Australia in 1994-95 because of a typhoid attack. Two years
and several records later, he missed out on yet another Australian
tour because of a viral illness. Yet Pakistan was able to win
the Triangular series without his services. But the same management
was concerned over the fact that star batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq and
ace leg spinner Mushtaq Ahmed were often overweight and suffered
from knee injuries. Both had several operations on their knees
but in the process missed out several matches.
Perhaps, Pakistan could learn from the example set by their former
captain, Imran Khan. But for a stress fracture of the shin bone
suffered during the series against India in 1982, Imran could
well have become the game's leading wickettaker. He did not play
any cricket for one year and then played only as a batsman for
another year. A natural bowler, his frustration was understandable,
particularly in the 1983 World Cup where Pakistan lost to the
West Indies in the semi-finals. Very soon, another Pak pace bowling
great, Waqar Younis, who had a higher strike rate than Imran and
was knocking down stumps all over the world with his swinging
yorkers, had to give up the game for a couple of years because
of a back injury diagnosed as a stress fracture. When Waqar returned
to big cricket, his action was more round-arm and the final leap
at the end of the bowling run was curtailed. But of late, there
are indications that Waqar was back at his best. His present fast
bowling partner and Pakistan skipper Wasim Akram had to pay for a surfeit
of cricket, both for his country and Lancashire county. Akram
had groin injuries, underwent frequent surgery and is now often
plagued with shoulder injuries. Already 30, we can only wonder
how long he will last.
Among the recent crop of West Indian pacemen, Ian Bishop was
once termed as the world's faster bowler. But suffering a stress
fracture of the back, he had to give up the game for long periods
and had already made three comebacks. Bishop now bowled at a lesser
pace with a side-on action which affected his accuracy, particularly
in Test matches. But such is the dearth of fast bowling talent
in the Caribbean that Bishop was an automatic choice for the Test
XI. But for a stress fracture of the shin bone, England's Darren
Gough might well have turned out to be another Ian Botham. After
a tremendous Ashes series in Australia, he faded away but bowled
well during the English tour of New Zealand.
While these injuries were quite commonplace, some of the older and
evenmodern cricketers often complained of mysterious ailments. Former
Indian opener Vijay Merchant often missed vital tours and matches
on account of injuries which had no rational explanation. Today,
Navjot Siddhu's fitness is a joke and he had been treated for
every ailment from asthma to zymosis! Sidhu reminds me of former
England fast bowler Chris Old, who complained of injuries of
every day. His scornful teammates and cricket correspondents often
remarked that Old had suffered every injury and illness except