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The Achilles factor in cricket

V Gangadhar

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 Gavaskar.

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 monthly periods.