“The First-Class Game Will Soon Have A Death On Its Hands” : Scenes From A Golden Age

The sad news of Mark Boucher’s injury-forced retirement prompted me to think about how rare it is these days (or so it seems to me) for a player to be seriously injured during a match.

I’ve had plenty of time this season to catch up with my reading and I’ve managed – at various county grounds – to pick up a selection of back copies of The Cricketer from – as it were – my formative years – the period when my interest in cricket was at its freshest and least jaundiced or jaded – which was the early ‘seventies.

I suppose many of us are inclined – if uncorrected – to think of the period when we first became interested in cricket as a Golden Age against which all subsequent cricket must be compared.  It’s always useful to be reminded of how things were at the time (or how they appeared to others, or were reported), as opposed to how we remember them.

One thing I’m inclined to rail against about the modern game is the way that the dice are loaded against the bowlers, and, in particular, the fast men.  Take away his helmet (I’m inclined to say when watching some of our more flamboyant galacticos) and his supercharged bat and his body armour and stick him up against Thommo or Holding on a dodgy track with unlimited bouncers allowed and we’d soon see what he was really made of …

But, reading through these Cricketers, it was salutary to be reminded of quite what a violent game it was in those days (for fieldsmen almost as much as batsmen) – and these are from a fairly random selection of issues.

In the 1971 Winter Annual, under the heading ‘A tragic accident’, A.R. Lewis writes –

‘A tragic accident happened on the field of play this week … I was crouched in the gully as Malcolm Nash bowled to Neil Abberley … Off the meat of the bat … the ball sped almost invisibly to crack Roger Davis a lightning blow above and behind the left ear … Violent grotesque convulsions and a sudden change of facial colouring warned us all that there was immediate need for professional medical attention … Two doctors ran on, one of whom thankfully revived Roger with mouth to mouth resuscitation, after his pulse had stopped.’

By January 1975, we’re on to England’s tour of Australia and some comments from John Woodcock –

‘The day began to some unedifying remarks by Lillee on television last night. The idea of the bouncer, as he uses it, is to hit the batsman ‘somewhere between the rib cage and the stomach.’  That is what he said, and he has written it previously in a book.  Thomson is already on record as saying that he enjoys felling a batsman with a bouncer.  This is the talk of the underworld, not of Test cricketers.’

By the Spring Annual of 1975 we’ve moved on to the aftermath of  the tour and the brief series against New Zealand.  Under the headline ‘A nightmare ending’ there is a description of Peter Lever almost killing Ewen Chatfield –

‘The first test at Auckland had a dramatic and unpalatable ending when Chatfield … collapsed at the wicket and his breathing stopped for a few moments after being struck by a ball from Lever.  It was ten minutes before Chatfield was carried from the field on a stretcher and during that time several England players thought that the blow … onto his temple had proved fatal.  Fortunately … the England physiotherapist was able to apply cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which undoubtedly saved Chatfield’s life … later a distressed Lever spoke to Chatfield as he recovered consciousness in hospital and his first comment to me afterwards was ‘I feel like retiring here and now’.’

By May 1975 under the heading ‘A martial, medical match’  Riaz Ahmed Mansuri reported on the second Test between Pakistan and West Indies in Karachi –

‘Sadiq Mohammad’s long air trip … was not in vain … he pulled Pakistan out of trouble … and this after a full-blooded hit from Julien struck him under the left ear as he fielded in close.  He was carried off … with Wasim Raja, with his injured right ankle in plaster and virtually out of the match, Pakistan’s plight was extremely serious … a total of 150 minutes’ play was lost, the running battle between police and crowd ending only under a cloud of teargas … When the ninth wicket fell the match was safe, Sadiq was in the nineties (seemingly recovered from his concussion), and the spectators rose to their feet cheering lustily as Wasim Raja, with a plastered foot, entered …’

On to June 1975, and ‘The Battle of Kingston’, as reported by Tony Cozier …

‘Bedi [the Indian captain] declared with only six wickets down ‘in disgust’ … Later Bedi denied that he had declared, saying that there was no-one fit enough to bat.  Vishwanath received a fracture on the middle finger of the right hand when struck by Holding;  Gaekwad was hit on the left ear, also by Holding, and was still groggy after spending two days in hospital.  Patel, who had three stitches inserted in a cut in his mouth caused by a ball from Holder, could possibly have batted, but … only if necessary.  This left only Bedi and Chandra and … both had painful hand injuries that made it impossible for them to hold the bat …’

Meanwhile, back in England, David Lloyd was being knocked unconscious by Bob Cottam of Northants, as reported by David Frith …

‘I listened to the shell-shocked recollections of those awful moments by members of the fielding side:  ‘His eyes rolled up, and all you could see was the whites.’ ‘Blood was coming from his nose.’  ‘After a while his legs started twitching.  It was terrible.’  ‘I couldn’t go over to him,’ said another player, who happened himself to be a batsman.  ‘It wasn’t my scene.’ [According to Cricket Archive, Lloyd was out ‘hit wicket b. Cottam 2’ and was absent hurt in the second innings.  I wonder which Northants batsman would have said ‘It’s not my scene’? Perhaps not Roy Virgin or David Steele.]

In July, in ‘News of the Month’ we find that ‘G. Boycott was put out of cricket for several weeks after sustaining a broken bone in his right hand at Old Trafford in mid-May‘, ‘A.P.E. Knott missed a fortnight’s cricket … owing to a chipped right index finger, the result of a rising ball from … W.W. Daniel’,  ‘A.J. Borrington, keeping wicket for Derbyshire, was taken to hospital after being struck on the head by one of Oxford University’s tail-end batsmen.’ and ‘B. Dudleston had his right thumb dislocated and fractured by a ball from S.J. Rouse … and was forced to miss a fortnight’s cricket.

In the same month’s issue John Woodcock reports from MCC v the West Indies …

‘It was horrible to watch.  Amiss was helped off, his shirt stained with blood … it was a reminder to the umpires that the first-class game … will soon have a death on its hands’ and (from the Daily Mail)  ‘Roope was ducking and weaving to escape physical punishment.  His cap was knocked off … and four leg-byes flew off the back of his shoulder …’

Just to finish the year off, in October’s News of the Month, David Frith notes

‘B. Hassan suffered a broken hand during Notts’ match against Essex at Trent Bridge … Asif Iqbal was hospitalised after being hit on the head during Kent’s match against Somerset at Taunton … J. Simmons, of Lancashire, had 16 stitches after being hit in the face by a ball from Somerset fast bowler H.R. Mosley.”

And this account, of course, only touches on the best-known instances of assault and battery of the era – Lillee and Thomson’s bowling against England on the ’74-’75 tour and the Holding’s  battering of Dad’s Army in 1976.  So here are a couple of reminders of what that was like –

Ouch.

So there’s the evidence.  Were those really the good old days?  Would I really want to go back to that?  Questions for another day…

4 thoughts on ““The First-Class Game Will Soon Have A Death On Its Hands” : Scenes From A Golden Age

  1. Some shocking stuff. Bob Cottam wasn’t even all that quick was he?

    Another one which comes to mind from the same era is Colin Cowdrey being knocked out by Andy Roberts’ quicker bouncer at Basingstoke, c.1974.

    In retrospect, it is genuinely surprising that nobody has ever been killed during an international cricket match, especially during the seventies. Of course, Chatfield very nearly was. And Roger Davis, fielding.

    The sight of Close, Edrich, Amiss and others facing Holding, Thomson and their henchmen with caps on their heads and no restrictions on short-pitched bowling can leave you open mouthed these days.

    You can see why helmets came in, really…

    • Brian – no, Cottam wasn’t that quick – about 80-85 mph I suppose in today’s money, and neither was Lever for that matter. In some ways it isn’t the intimidatory bowling by the real quicks that’s striking when you look back at this but the routine broken fingers and so on in county cricket, which I suppose were just down to primitive protection.

      Cowdrey was a bit of a punchbag over the years – one thinks of him batting one-armed against Hall & Griffiths back in 61-62 or whenever.

      Not possible really to regret the introduction of helmets – though I can’t help regretting a little that physical courage is no longer a required part of the batsman’s makeup.

  2. And these days players miss Test matches for what I think we should call ‘Jimmy’ degree strains.

    That footage of Thomson is exhilarating, but so are lots of other things that society is better off without. Contemporary test cricket would though benefit from a few tearaway quicks.

    Would you add to the list of horrors Botham top-edging Roberts into his face and spitting his teeth onto the pitch?

  3. I think being seriously injured by Andy Roberts was a kind of rite of passage for county players in those days. Can’t help wondering how today’s England top 5 would cope with that kind of attack (Cook, Trott, KP). With helmets, protection, bouncer limitations I imagine they’d cope – without, perhaps no better than their counterparts 35 years ago?

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