1975 March 21, 2008

'I honestly thought I had killed him'

When Ewen Chatfield's life was saved by the quick action of the England physio
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Ewen Chatfield staggers away after being struck by Peter Lever © The Cricketer
 

It was a shell-shocked England side that headed to New Zealand in February 1975, bounced and battered into a 4-1 Ashes defeat by the fearsome pace attack of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. At times during the series it had been easier to work out which England batsmen were not injured, such was the punishment inflicted on them.

The short two-Test trip to New Zealand offered a welcome respite on more English-style pitches against a side with no out-and-out fast bowlers. In the first Test in Auckland, England's batsmen feasted after the Australian famine - Keith Fletcher led the way with 216 and Mike Denness, the captain, followed his 188 in the final Ashes Test in Melbourne with 181, in a total of 593 for 6 declared.

New Zealand managed 326 and, following on, slid to 140 for 9 late on the fourth afternoon. Although Geoff Howarth remained, few expected the No. 11 - Ewen Chatfield, a 24-year-old fast bowler making his debut - to delay the end too long. However, the pair stubbornly held out for the last half hour before bad light brought a slightly premature finish.

With only one wicket left to fall and New Zealand still requiring 105 runs to make England bat again, there were general frustration that everyone had to hang around for another two days - the rest day was between the fourth and fifth days. Light rain fell through the Sunday and the forecast for Monday was not much better, so there was still a glimmer of hope for the home side.

Howarth and Chatfield resumed after the weekend under low grey skies in front of a smattering of spectators. Peter Lever, Lancashire's fast bowler, and medium-pace spinner Derek Underwood opened the bowling but were defied for another 35 minutes as the last pair took the score to 181 for 9.

Chatfield gave one chance, almost gloving Lever for a catch to one of the short-leg fielders, and as Lever admitted later, "I thought this was the way to get him ... I brought in two close fieldsmen and aimed another one at the glove". The fifth ball of his fifth over the day was short, Chatfield tried to fend it away even as he turned his head away, and the ball deflected off his gloves into his left temple. "I lost sight of it and I knew it had hit me on the head," Chatfield said. "For a few seconds I staggered and then fell over."

"God, I bowled the ball too straight and he couldn't get out of the way," Lever told reporters. The seriousness of the injury was immediately apparent to the players, who looked on helplessly as Chatfield, who had lost consciousness, lay on the ground twitching and moaning.


A distraught Lever is consoled by Derek Underwood © The Cricketer
 

Bernard Thomas, the England physiotherapist, sitting in the No. 1 Stand, did not immediately react - "I was aware I was a guest and it was a New Zealand Cricket situation" - but as luck would have it, there was no doctor on the ground as the authorities had believed that as a swift finish was expected, it was not needed. Thomas, however, was alerted by yells from the fielders and sprinted on accompanied by a local ambulanceman.

Thomas realised that Chatfield had swallowed his tongue, so he dealt with that and asked for resuscitation equipment to be brought out ... only to be told there was none.

"It was the worst case I have seen and I never want to see another," he said later. "His heart had stopped beating and technically that's the sign of dying." The ambulanceman echoed those views. "If we hadn't got there when we did, he could have died. It was as serious as that."

As this was going on Lever slumped to his knees, sobbing. "When the ambulancemen were working on Ewen, it was the closest I had come to praying for a long time," he said. "I honestly thought I had killed him as I saw him lying there in convulsions. I felt sick and ashamed at what I had done and all I could think when I got back to the pavilion was that I wanted to retire."

A few spectators initially barracked Lever until the seriousness of the situation became apparent.

Chatfield, stabilised although still unconscious, was taken from the field on a stretcher and rushed to hospital in an ambulance, accompanied by Thomas. On the journey he opened his eyes and asked what was happening. "Don't worry," Thomas assured him.

Chatfield regained full consciousness half an hour later and Thomas chatted with him before returning to the ground. It turned out Chatfield had sustained a hairline fracture of his skull.

Lever left the field behind the stretcher weeping and would not be consoled, though his team-mates tried to convince him that he was not to blame. That day he made two visits to the hospital. The first time Chatfield was still unconscious, but he was much recovered when Lever returned and he assured the distraught Lever that the accident was his own fault.

"If any one thing did worry me going into this game, it was just what did happen," Chatfield said the next day. "My reflexes are not that quick. It's not really his [Lever's] fault ... I should have been able to get out of the way." He admitted that Lever was the first man to bowl a bouncer at him, but added: "He's a very nice fellow."


An unconscious Chatfield is stretchered off the field, accompanied by Bernard Thomas and Underwood © The Cricketer
 

New Zealand TV had carried pictures of the incident but had cut their coverage soon after and ended by saying Chatfield had been rushed to hospital. Watching at home were his parents who rang around but were unable to find anyone to tell them what was going on. In the end they called the police who told them which hospital their son had been taken to. His father phoned the hospital where a nurse asked if he wanted to speak to him. "If I could have reached down the phone and kissed her, I would have," his father recalled.

Henry Blofeld in the Guardian wrote: "It was the final and appalling irony that one of the England bowlers, who had ducked and weaved himself through Australia, should himself have come very close to killing Chatfield."

The incident triggered a worldwide debate on the legitimacy of bouncers, especially those aimed at tailenders. It came in a week when Intikhab Alam had been struck a sickening, but fortunately not serious, blow by Andy Roberts, and the in aftermath of the Ashes fusillade, during which nobody had been spared and at the start of which Thomson infamously told TV viewers how he enjoyed hitting batsmen. Perhaps the most ridiculous reaction came from Dennis Howell, the British minister for sports, who said that the government would look at including short-pitched bowling in Health & Safety legislation.

For all the rhetoric, nothing changed. Later that year West Indies were subjected to pretty much the same treatment by Australia as England had been, and they in turn adopted a four-man fast bowling attack that battered England in 1976 and India the following season. The advent of the anything-goes approach adopted in World Series Cricket finally ended any pretence of there being a gentlemen's agreement about not bowling bouncers at non batsmen. The introduction of helmets, while undoubtedly saving lives, also led to a feeling among fast bowlers that everyone became fair game.

Chatfield made a full recovery although he did not play again until the following season, and had to wait two years for the second of his 43 Test caps.

Bibliography
Chats: Ewen Chatfield's Life in Cricket
by Ewen Chatfield with Lynn McConnell (Moa, Auckland, 1988)

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo