Underarm cricket, played with a rubber or tennis ball, was quite the rage in Bombay during my school and college days. It was the ideal format given Bombay’s small building compounds and narrow gullies, but there were regular tournaments too, played on bigger grounds. The matches were extremely competitive and high intensity 10-over games and could get rowdy at short notice.
The bowling, including spin, was really fast from a distance of about 15 feet. There was no real technique to the batting. You just placed the bat in the way of the ball and if it hit your bat properly, it would fly away in some direction for runs. Very few strokes were intentionally played. Some batsmen took a forward defence-like stance to begin with.
I was one of the faster bowlers in the neighbourhood. The red rubber ball was hard, bounced a lot and was difficult to control, but I had mastered it to a great extent.
Once, in a local match, I had already taken a few wickets and my team was on a high. But a young bespectacled batsman, probably 14-15 years old, was just refusing to get out. He would nudge away even my fastest balls and was being cheered on by the small crowd that had gathered.
We were getting more and more frustrated and I was feeling the pressure, hearing some jeering coming my way. I started glaring and muttering at the youngster but to no avail. Call it luck or whatever but every ball was hitting the middle of his bat that day.
Angrily, I started pitching the ball short so it would not hit his bat. On that unrolled mud surface, the ball took off wildly after pitching. But he still managed to touch some of the balls and scoot for a run or two to loud cheering from the crowd. I lost it! How dare this little twit of a boy defy a famed underarm fast bowling exponent like me! It was humiliating!
In a fit of anger, I put all my strength into my shoulder and pitched one ball just short of a good length in line with the stumps, hoping that the ball would rise and hit him in the face. I didn’t want his wicket any more. I just wanted to hurt him, stop him, show him who was the boss! Even before the ball pitched at the perfect spot, I knew what was going to happen.
The ball rocketed up from just near him and even before he could raise his bat, it crashed into his left eye with full force, smashing his specs to smithereens. He screamed and dropped to the ground in agony, his hands clutching his eye. We all froze for a second and then rushed to him. He was screaming and thrashing in pain, his face covered with blood. We were all crying and screaming his name, asking him to show us his face. We pulled his hands away. The glass of his specs had shattered into a million pieces and we could see the shards all around his eye and his face. His eye seemed to be bleeding profusely and there was blood all over his clothes.
The crowd had gathered around and everybody was shouting. I dared not look up. I felt a hundred eyes on me. A few guys quickly helped the boy to his feet and rushed him to the hospital. A couple of other guys went to inform his family. The game was quietly abandoned and we went home.
I did not want or expect this kind of injury, but there was no escape from guilt and fear. I was sure every person there would tell the police and his family that I had hurt him. I had probably maimed the kid and left him with a handicap for life. Maybe he would have had to give up cricket for ever. His family would not spare me. I would be sent to jail. I huddled in a corner of the house, terrified, cursing myself again and again, waiting for the doorbell to ring.
A few hours later, in the late afternoon, a couple of my friends came to tell me what they had heard. The kid’s eye was unharmed. The glass pieces had just pierced the skin and none had entered his eye. The doctors had pulled them all out and bandaged one side of his face. His eyesight was intact though he was in tremendous pain. It would take a couple of days but he would be fine. In any case, it was the last underarm match I played in.
But this post is not about my terrifying experience.
Many people think that that sledging is exciting, that bodyline bowling is thrilling and the batsmen facing such bowling are super brave. Maybe that last part is true. But that bravery should not be necessary.
Cricket is a game, not a war. That hard red cricket ball is a toy, not a weapon. Rival players are just humans, not mortal enemies to be vanquished and ground into the dust. There is nothing manly about hurting another human being to just get a wicket. People have families waiting for them at home. They have sent them to play a game, not to the battle front.
It is not about courage or technique. Phillip Hughes, Australia’s opener, must have faced hundreds of thousands of balls in his accomplished career from some of the fastest bowlers in the world. His bravery and technique were unquestionable. In the end, it just took one ball, just one ball to fell and kill him. The coroner’s verdict called it a ‘miniscule misjudgement’ on Hughes’ part. He said Hughes had been targeted with sledging and bouncers that day. Another bowler had told Hughes that he ‘was going to kill him’ but later denied saying it that day, though he admitted saying that on other occasions. (The inquest and the report are very revealing, for
those interested). Hughes’ family was not happy with the report.
Sean Abbot, whose ball killed Hughes, hit another promising 20-year-old Australian batsman, Will Pucovski, in the head a few years later. The batsman was all set to be called up for national duty. Five years later, he has not recovered and is yet to make a successful comeback, despite repeated attempts.
Most of the fastest bowlers are bullies and feel a wicket is their birthright. Thin-skinned and easily frustrated, they will resort to bodyline bowling if their speed doesn’t faze you. Many batsmen dread and detest it but want to look macho and not admit it publicly for fear of being called cowards. A good bowler with confidence in his own skill does not need to indulge in such behaviour. Above all, it is highly irresponsible for administrators, commentators and spectators to encourage or exult in such tactics as they did in the last Australia-England Ashes Test.
Even after all these years, I shudder and tremble at what could have happened and what the kid and his family must have gone through. It was just a rubber ball that did so much damage. Imagine the kind of havoc a hard cricket ball bowled at almost 150 kmph can wreak.
Is it really worth it?