October 25, 2010

The lighter side of injuries

The incident triggered some memories for me as I thought about the times I’ve been on a field when an injury has occurred and how people reacted

Last Sunday, I was covering a cricket fundraiser in New York that served as a warm-up game for the region’s Under-19 and men’s squad members before their departure, in a few weeks, for the national championships in Florida. The game was meandering along towards a dreary conclusion in fading light when one of the teenagers, who was bowling, former USA Under-15 player Amarnauth Persaud, was struck in the neck by the ball after he couldn’t get his hands up in time for a return catch.

It was a frightening scene and the match was immediately called off. Everyone handled themselves quite well in the circumstances, and the young man is reportedly doing fine.

The incident triggered some memories for me as I thought about the times I’ve been on a field when an injury has occurred and how people have reacted. The injuries themselves were never funny, but the reactions surrounding them could be viewed as somewhat comical.

The first such incident I witnessed was when I was playing for Omaha Cricket Club in Nebraska back in 2007. We had driven three hours east to play a match in Des Moines, Iowa. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have gone that far to play a match, but my university semester had just finished and I was going back to the east coast for a summer internship, so this was going to be my last chance to play with OCC for awhile.

I was fielding at square leg and one of our fast bowlers was on. He sent down a bouncer, which didn’t appear to be all that quick, but the batsman was late on the hook. Like most club players, he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and it was like a slow-motion movie sequence, seeing him get hit in the face. The wicketkeeper and a couple others rushed in to see how he was. He remained standing the whole time, but there was a gash on his cheek where the seam had cut in, and it was bleeding pretty badly. He, however, tried to just dab up the blood and shrug it off, being the dedicated cricketer that he was.

“Koi baat nahi yaar. Theek hai (It’s no big deal, it’s alright). I’m fine. Let’s keep playing,” he said. The blood had slowed down and everyone was almost ready to let him keep going until he reached for a bottle of water to wash out some of the blood that was in his mouth. He took a few sips with the intention of washing his mouth. Instead, the water mixed with blood started squirting out from the side of his face. The seam had punctured his cheek through to his mouth. One of his team-mates standing nearby almost fainted. Despite this, he really wanted to keep on playing. It was only when he tried to take another swig of water and his teammates ripped the bottle out of his hand that he got the message: it was time to go to a hospital.

In 2008, I spent the spring and summer living in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom and played for Hertford cricket club. About halfway through the season, I played a match at Knebworth Park and started as one of the umpires while we were batting. In the first couple of overs, one of Knebworth Park’s slip fielders dropped a couple of absolute dollies. One would have thought that the captain would have moved him out of the slips because of his poor fielding. As it transpired, he definitely should have taken him out on the grounds of safety.

Instead, the guy stayed in the same spot and sure enough another chance went his way. Unlike the others, which were at knee height, this one was going straight for his head. Rather than cup his hands in an attempt to catch the ball, he stubbornly continued to implement the fly-swatting technique and predictably missed, with the ball clanging off his face. Again, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion. Our legendary captain, Eric Riddle, showed no mercy by taking a run as the ball bounced away behind the slips.

The poor guy had to be walked off the field with a towel over his face and was taken to a hospital to get stitches. I had come off the field during the delay and most of our team were struggling to hide their faces as the guy walked past. They were in splits, talking about how each drop was more dreadful than the previous one and that it was a shame he could no longer provide any more let-offs.

Meanwhile, our wicketkeeper Josh Clark was sent in to be a substitute fielder for Knebworth Park. A couple of chances were sent his way as he fielded on the boundary while Eric was still at the crease, but the captain shot him a deathly stare each time to make sure the ball not only dropped safely in front of Josh, but was followed by an errant throw back to the infield. Well played Josh.

However, easily the most memorable calamity happened this past summer. After my time with Wolfpak ended, I got connected with Columbia cricket club in New York and had an enjoyable season with them. One of the main reasons was Madhura Gunasekera. Madhura was a senior member in the club, average height with a stocky build, and one of the nicest guys I’ve come across in club cricket circles … which makes it all the more entertaining when he turns psychotic out in the middle.

It was my second match for the Sunday side and we were playing at the Van Cortlandt Park Stable Ground in the Bronx. On one of the hottest weekends of the summer, we batted first and scored 267 for 6 in 35 overs. I came in at No. 3 and scored 42 at about a run a ball, but I felt like I’d been out there for three or four hours with the heat as bad as it was. One of our openers, Varun, top scored with 77 and throughout my partnership with him, I kept asking if he was okay as he looked on the verge of collapsing. Madhura was on the sidelines the entire time, scolding us for not running hard enough between the wickets.

By the time we were in the field, the heat was starting to take its toll on the rest of the team. We put on an absolutely appalling fielding display, getting more lethargic by the over as the heat sapped our energy. We probably cost ourselves 50 runs in dropped catches and misfields. Despite all the misses, we had our opponents five-down at the midway point of the chase, but the current partnership kept growing and Madhura kept getting more frustrated. With about seven overs left, it looked like the other team might chase down the target.

At this point, Madhura came on for a second spell to bowl medium pace. I was fielding on the mid-wicket boundary, Varun was at long on and another one of our better players, Dixit, was at long off. Madhura bowled a length delivery that the batsman creamed flat and hard in the air towards Dixit. He came in running hard and never slowed down to steady himself for the catch, failing to get his hands up in time. Everything went into slow motion for me at midwicket. I knew I was watching another car crash about to happen.

The sound of the ball cannoning into Dixit’s face is one of the most sickening sounds I’ve ever heard. A giant snap echoed across the field as Dixit fell to the ground. Varun was the nearest fielder and immediately ran over to see if Dixit was alive, let alone conscious. Cue Madhura’s voice, screeching out his heartfelt concern:


While Varun was kneeling over Dixit, the batsmen were completing a third. Someone eventually got the ball back in before play was stopped. Luckily, the park is big enough with plenty of activities going on apart from the cricket so an ambulance was stationed there. A medic was able to get onto the field within a minute of the incident taking place to administer some treatment.

By this point, I had made it across the field to see Dixit. He was up on his feet and wasn’t bleeding too much with only a small cut near his nose, but the side of his face where the ball made contact looked like a scrambled egg. His eye socket appeared to be completely smashed while his cheekbone had fractured inwards. His skin was swollen and sagging from his eye down to his jaw.

It was safe to say that the ball had rearranged Dixit’s face. At the same time, Madhura was ready to use his fists to rearrange Varun’s face.

“Once he’s injured, there’s nothing we can do,” started Madhura, “but the ball is still in play! You can check on him later! You have to go after the ball!”

Varun tried to cut in and reason with Madhura, but he was having none of it. Forget the nice Madhura off the field. To paraphrase “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the on-field Madhura is a hard guy. After about a 10-minute delay, play resumed and fielding with 10 men, we wound up winning the match by about 20 runs. Madhura then took Dixit to the hospital, where it was confirmed he had multiple fractures and would not take any further part in the season.

Sadly, Madhura sent out an email at the end of the season saying that he would need back surgery for the second time in less than a year, and after 13 seasons of playing with Columbia, he was going to have to call it quits. Looking back on that day at VCP, I cringe when I think of Dixit’s injury, but can’t help but laugh at Madhura’s reaction. Even though I only got to play part of one season with him, I’m going to miss being around Madhura because of his big smile off the field and his insanity on it.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey