1962 December 6, 2014

The bouncer that ended a career

In 1962, India's captain, Nari Contractor, was left critically ill after being hit on the head by a West Indian fast bowler

Batting has often been dangerous since the earliest days of the game and, as the tragic events of the last fortnight have shown, even in the modern era of padding and helmets, it retains that edge.

Mercifully, serious injuries are rare, but in 1962, India's young captain Nari Contractor was left critically ill after being struck on the head by West Indies fast bowler Charlie Griffith. He made a remarkable recovery and while he did return to the game, he was never again picked for his country.

Contractor, a left-hand batsman, made his Test debut as a 21-year-old in 1955-56 but did not really come to the fore until the late 1950s, when he scored his only Test century against the Australians in Bombay. When he was appointed India's captain in 1960-61, he was the youngest to hold the position, and a year later he led the side to a historic series win over England.

He was picked to lead India to the Caribbean in 1961-62 but it proved a tough trip from the off. West Indies won the first two Tests by large margins and Contractor's form was poor: he managed 26 runs in four innings, although he did fare better in the tour matches.

After defeat in the second Test, at Sabina Park, the Indians travelled to Barbados for a game against a side that boasted the fearsome pace attack of Charlie Griffith, Wes Hall and George Rock.

The 23-year-old Griffith was an unknown quantity outside the region; his only Test appearance had come two years earlier. However, he had a reputation.

Contractor recalled a cocktail party when Frank Worrell, the West Indies captain, warned him about what to expect. "As we had so many injuries before the game, [Frank] suggested that it would be better to get out than getting hit. Frank said Griffith was crude and impolite. He cited an example of him hitting an 18-year-old batsman on the head and he didn't even apologise to him, so Frank told us to take care."

Though he originally intended to miss the game, the squad's injury problems meant Contractor had to play. Winning the toss, Barbados scored 394.

Contractor and Dilip Sardesai began the Indians' reply shortly before lunch on the second day and headed into the break relieved that Griffith, in his only over, had not seemed to be the beast they had been warned about. As they walked back to the pavilion, Sardesai turned to Contractor and smiled. "Fast, my foot."

Sardesai fell to Hall for a duck in the first over after the interval and was replaced by Rusi Surti. Griffith resumed the next over to Contractor and the first ball was short and whistled past the batsman's nose.

Surti immediately shouted down the pitch to his captain that he thought Griffith was chucking the ball. Contractor replied that in that case he should tell the umpire. The next two deliveries were as quick, and off the fourth he was almost caught at short leg off a defensive prod.

The fifth ball has been endlessly discussed, and there are two sides to how it is recalled. Some say it was a bouncer, others that it was just short of a length and Contractor ducked into it.

Wisden was clear. "Contractor did not duck into the ball. He got behind it to play at it. He probably wanted to fend it away towards short-leg, but could not judge the height to which it would fly, bent back from the waist in a desperate, split-second attempt to avoid it and was hit just above the right ear."

Contractor slumped to his haunches, clutching his head. Within a minute he had started bleeding from his nose and ears. He was helped from the middle by Ghulam Ahmed, the Indians' manager. In the pavilion, Contractor changed his bloodied clothes but the bleeding continued and he was rushed to hospital.

Back in the middle the match continued. Soon after, Griffith hit Vijay Manjrekar in the nose and he too had to retire hurt.

At the hospital, Contractor's condition worsened. He was throwing up, and was losing movement on the left of his body. That evening Ahmed gave permission for an emergency operation to be carried out. The local surgeon was not a specialist (the neurosurgeon did not arrive from Trinidad until the next morning) but he did enough to relieve the pressure on Contractor's brain. In stabilising him, it bought enough time to enable the neurosurgeon to carry out a second operation when he finally appeared.

In the course of the surgeries Contractor lost a lot of blood and several players - including Worrell, Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni and Polly Umrigar - donated theirs to help him.

"Worrell's gesture, coming from the opposition, showed the game transcended boundaries," Borde said. He also recalled that "the lights went off as the [first] operation was going on. We thought that was a bad omen. It took three to four hours. That was miserable."

An upset Griffith also visited the hospital at the close of play. The players had not been made aware of the seriousness of the situation until the end of the day.

Griffith also had other problems. India, who had been skittled out for 86, followed-on, and almost immediately he was no-balled for throwing by the square-leg umpire, Cortez Jordan. The crowd vented their anger on the official, while Griffith said he "bowled at half-pace, like a robot". Presciently, he admitted that he feared he would be labelled as a bowler who hurt a batsman by chucking.

Back at the hospital, Contractor was still not out of danger. He regained full consciousness after six days and spent some time recuperating in Barbados with his wife, who had flown in to be by his side, before returning to India. Before he did so, Griffith said Contractor told his wife, who had gone to visit him: "Charlie is not to blame… it was all my fault."

There were widespread calls to ban bouncers completely in the aftermath of the incident, but Contractor, speaking a month after being hit, said he was against such proposals. "I wouldn't like to create a situation that would allow anybody to point a finger at me and say, 'Because he was hit, he is a crybaby.' If the ICC decide to ban or curb the bouncer, let them do so. But let them do it because they think it is good for cricket. I don't want to end my career in a mess of complaints."

Looking back last month, Contractor told the Hindu: "Those were days when there were no helmets, no restriction on the number of bouncers in an over and no restrictions on beamers either. The pitches were uncovered. But it was the same for everyone then and we were prepared for the challenge. No complaints."

Contractor was advised to retire, but he was determined to play Test cricket again. He returned to the first-class game after ten months but was not picked for India again. The selectors, he later said, were afraid of what might happen were he to be hit on the head again. Ahmed, by then the head selector, asked Contractor's wife how she could allow him to continue. "The very fact he is here today is his destiny," she replied. "Who am I to tinker with his destiny?"

Griffith went on to play 28 Tests for West Indies and was reckoned to be one of the fastest bowlers of his generation. He was only no-balled twice in his career - once in this match and again in 1966 in a tour match against Lancashire - but unease over his quicker ball dogged his career. "You could almost put one hand in your pocket and play him," former England batsman Brian Close said, "and then suddenly one would come at you four yards quicker."

India were beaten by an innings against Barbados. They went on to lose the Test series 5-0. Contractor was replaced as captain by the 21-year-old Nawab of Pataudi.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email rewind@cricinfo.com with your comments and suggestions.