"I had a major head injury, fracture and clotting, was in the ICU, needed head surgery and about 40-45 stitches," recounts the Haryana allrounder Joginder Sharma, talking about his car accident last November which nearly ended his cricketing career. A year on, he has returned to the Ranji circuit, signing autographs as a knot of kids surround him before the day's play in the cricketing outback of Hubli.
It has been a difficult journey back to the field for the man who has been the cornerstone of Haryana's Ranji side for several seasons. "My family was a little apprehensive," he says. "The doctors were cautious, because that's the nature of head injuries. Kuch bhi ho sakta hain (anything can happen)."
Still, Joginder was desperate to play again. "My willpower was good," he replies when asked how he pulled through the tough times. "I started training, started running, physio Amit Tyagi was there, he worked a lot as well, it is because of him that I am back on the field. I spoke to our Haryana coach Ashwini Kumar as well."
Ashwini says the team could sense how badly Joginder wanted to return. "When three-four months after the accident he came to the ground he kept feeling, 'mujhe kuch karna hain, mujhe kuch karna hain (I need to do something), so I just told him, 'bhai, just listen to the advice of the doctors and the physio Amit Tyagi. Just do what they ask you to do'."
At the start they gave Joginder some light exercises. "Our primary aim was that his health should not be affected by cricket," Ashwini says. "We kept him at a minimum level of exercises, like we would to a beginner. We told him to not take up a big load at the beginning itself, however you can bowl, even if it is slow, just bowl like that. Slowly he began to find his rhythm."
There was a bigger challenge than getting Joginder back to full fitness. "The mental trauma was as tough for him to deal with as anything else," Tyagi says, "because you can build on the physical aspect any time but when somebody is mentally down, somebody is psychologically down, it makes things very difficult."
Tyagi explains how the process of building Joginder's mental strength began. "We, everybody, basically reminded him of his past performances for Haryana, and for the country," Tyagi says. "As everybody knows, he bowled the final over, possibly the most pressurised, stressful moment of anybody's cricket career. Everybody reminded him about the tense moments, the victory and we motivated him about his performances."
After the initial part of the recovery, in an attempt to increase his confidence, the Haryana camp decided to not treat Joginder differently from the other players. "When you have had an accident you start to doubt yourself as a lot of things come to your mind, 'what if I get hit on the head?'" Tyagi says. "When you go through physical training, you realise 'Okay, I'm normal', when you play a bouncer you think 'Okay, I'm normal'. We didn't ask our bowlers to do anything different, we didn't ask them to bowl slow, or not bowl bouncers, that's how he gained confidence. He felt he was absolutely normal now; breaking down the psychological barrier was the most important thing."
Joginder has had plenty of injury problems in the past couple of years, even before the accident: an ankle problem that needed surgery and a neck injury as well, and there was more trouble on the comeback trail. "I started cricket about six months ago, bowling in the nets, our district matches, but I was finding it difficult to last an entire match," Joginder says. "I played a tournament in Delhi, I did quite well there, so two-and-a-half months before the Ranji season I was in good rhythm. Then I played in some practice games and I picked up a shoulder injury."
Once he recovered from that, Haryana's physio and trainer put him through several fitness tests. "He cleared all of them," says Ashwini. "As our Ranji season started, we organised matches between the Under-19 side and the Ranji probables whom he played for. Then, when we were satisfied that he can withstand four days of cricket, that he can bowl 20-25 overs, then we slowly brought him back to the squad."
Joginder's first step back to first-class level was in the match against Uttar Pradesh earlier this month. He had been out of top-flight domestic cricket for nearly 14 months. "I was a little agitated at the start of the UP game," Joginder recalls, "but once the match started I bowled, after five-six overs I got some confidence, then I batted and did well, scoring 65, which increased my confidence even more." A further indication of his fitness levels came from the 30 overs he bowled in the second innings against UP.
"I'm really happy about the improvement in his physical fitness, and his performance also," Tyagi says, "If you are working on somebody, some project and if you are successful in that, you feel really happy."
The coach is also thrilled with his progress, but says Joginder is still not at his best. "There's no doubt about his class and ability. I have tracked his progress for a long time as he used to play in my academy as a child," Ashwini says. "In the batting he is ok, but in the bowling, the level he was at before, he has not reached it yet, and it will take him two or three months of physical training."
The famous final over against Pakistan was Joginder's final act in international cricket so far, not having got another India match since, something he is hoping will change. "I'm doing better than I expected, there is no pain now," he says. "My goal now is to stay fit and play as many matches as possible, to keep performing and the rest is in the hands of the national selectors."