What happens when a cricketer gets injured in the midst of a match? They become very dangerous, says Nick Campion.
Ian Botham crouched down, spat out a mouthful of teeth and blood. The blood continued to flow, and no wonder. Botham had just been hit in the face by an Andy Roberts bouncer. It was June 1974, and an unknown 18-year-old was playing for Somerset against Hampshire in the quarter-finals of the Benson & Hedges Cup.
Hampshire had been bowled out for 182 and Somerset were struggling at 131-8 in reply. Botham had come out to bat at No.9 but thanks to the impromptu dental work, the game seemed to be up. But the young allrounder refused to go off. Continuing to spit out blood, he faced up to Roberts again, took three off a yorker next ball and went on to shepherd the tail through to a famous one-wicket win. Botham was Man of the Match. “As I look back on it,” he recalled later, “hitting me in the mouth was the worst thing Andy could have done. It seemed to relax me. It made me all the keener.”
Cricket is littered with incidents where an injury to a player transforms a performance and even a match. There was Denis Compton in 1947 against Australia, top-edging a Ray Lindwall bouncer into his head, resuming his innings a short while later with England in trouble and going on to get a ton.
There was the 1977 Centenary Test in Melbourne, where Australian opener Rick McCosker had his jaw broken by a Bob Willis bouncer in the first innings. On release from hospital two days later, face wired up and bandaged, he came out helmetless at No.10 for the second innings. He made 25, putting on 54 for the ninth wicket with Rod Marsh. Australia won by 45 runs.
And so it goes on – Robin Smith’s jaw, Gordon Greenidge’s back, Anil Kumble’s jaw, Malcolm Marshall’s arm… but why is it that so many famously defiant and brilliant performances even happened? These people were injured, were physically disadvantaged. Surely their effectiveness should have been nullified by the injury?
This is to ignore the most important part of the body – the bit between the ears. Steve Sylvester is a chartered psychologist, former first-class cricketer, Level 3 coach and founder of the ‘withoutEGO’ philosophy. He has worked with scores of elite sportsmen, including many cricketers. He says it’s all down to the change in mindset that an injury forces on a player.
“Professional sportspeople have to be totally self-absorbed. For a cricketer, playing cricket is their livelihood, they are paid to perform so that is what they must do every single day. They are being watched all the time, assessed, judged and expected to perform. But all these pressures can actually kill performance. What an injury does is influence a player in a way that is beyond their control and consequently frees them from their self-absorption. With the pressure of expectation taken off them, the player starts to think, ‘What could I still manage to do for my team?’ He moves from selfish to selfless in a moment. The pressure is off and he is able to express himself.
“It becomes one of those rare opportunities for a professional cricketer to play for the reason he started playing in the first place – for pleasure. Everything becomes simpler, slowed down. The player starts to look around, take it all in, enjoy it. The elite player still has his skills and his knowledge, and this calm state of mind allows him to make the very best of the ability he has.
“Getting sportspeople to this state of mind – but without the injury – is the very essence of my mission. When you are happy, you are free. When you’re free, you will play without the burdens of expectation and pressure.”
Here’s what Steve Waugh said in 2001 when he famously scored a remarkable hundred at the Oval with a torn calf: “Sometimes you play your best cricket when you have a niggle or something’s not quite right. When I got to 20 or 30 I thought I’d better play some shots because I wasn’t much value running between the wickets and it was good fun – it was like being 19 or 20 years old again.”
The injury is the trigger to think differently. It reshapes the way a player sees the game. It becomes uncomplicated, liberating and fun. “I’ve worked with 10 world champions over the last 15 years,” Sylvester says. “They enter a zone that few people can reach. They actually let go of thinking about winning altogether.”
The injured player also has an effect on his teammates. Sylvester believes the galvanising effect of injuries can be felt every day in county cricket: “It tends to be the bowlers who go the extra mile, constantly bowling with niggles and pains. Their teammates see the effort it takes to get on the field of play and to bowl through the pain, and it raises their morale.”
It’s not just the bowlers. In the fourth Test of the 1932/33 Bodyline tour of Australia, England’s Eddie Paynter was taken to hospital in Brisbane with tonsillitis and a temperature of over 102°F. With England struggling in their first innings at 216-6 he climbed from his hospital bed, returned to the ground in his pyjamas, changed into his whites, refused a runner and batted, sweated and trembled in the Brisbane heat for 90 minutes. Not out at the close, he went back to his hospital bed. Returning to the crease next morning, he batted for four hours to make 83. In a series marked by its hostility, he was clapped off by fielders and spectators alike. He even fielded for a couple of hours before returning to hospital. England were able to manufacture a 16-run lead on first innings and it was Paynter himself who hit the winning six in the second innings to finish the game. Who could argue against this courage being anything but an inspiration to his teammates?
So don’t panic next time Joe Root takes a blow to the elbow, Jimmy Anderson gets the flu or Jos Buttler starts stretching a dodgy hammy. The best could yet be to come.