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Rick Darling: bouncer magnet

Listening to the former Australia batsman talk about being hit by short balls is to realise how perilous batting was back in the day

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Rick Darling, Adelaide, December 14, 2014

Rick Darling recalls being hit in the chest: "Unfortunately, at the time, I was chewing a chewy, and I swallowed my tongue and chewy as well"  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"There was probably more sledging I got in Shield cricket than anything else. It surprises me (laughing) the amount of sledging we did get, looking back. They were dead-set death threats. You get fellows and bowlers, who shall remain nameless, but they were - what's the word - vindictive. Not vindictive. Very aggressive. They wanted to kill ya."
Did they mean it?
"It's in the heat of the moment. So I suppose they don't mean it, but, you know, you look at what's happened now."
Rick Darling knows "what's happened now" could have happened to him a few times in his career. He played Shield cricket in the late '70s and '80s, a time when Australian cricket was so tough it is near-mythical now.
It nearly did happen to Darling once, when he blacked out on the pitch during a Test match. Regular blows to the head have left him with post-traumatic epilepsy. He still has trouble with light entering his bad left eye, which bore the brunt of a bouncer in a Shield game.
Darling was, by most accounts, an adventurous hooker and cutter. He is recognised as one of the best Australian fielders at cover and short cover in his time. He followed the Ian Chappell school of thought when it came to facing the bouncer: try to hook first, which means you are watching the ball for longer than when trying to duck, and pull out of the shot only if it seems too difficult to control.
"I never ducked," Darling says. "I always would have a go at it. I suppose there were some balls that were just… and I don't know how I did it, or how the players did do it, but they realise the ball was too quick and they wouldn't hook. I could never duck. I would probably sway out of the way of it. Or get inside and realise it was too high or too quick. All this is done in a split second."
Darling might have begun to show signs of nerves later in his career, but it was his sense of adventure as Test opener first caught the eye. Yet he played his last Test before he was 23, and ended his first-class career before his 30th birthday. The bouncer played a big part.
Listening to him talk abut bouncers is to realise how perilous batting was back in the day - not that it needs reiteration after Phillip Hughes' death - but also a chilling reminder that the likelihood of a fat injury to a batsman has always been high. For the cricketers of the day, though, it was business as usual.
Take the example of when a Bob Willis short ball nearly killed Darling, at his home ground, Adelaide Oval, in early 1979. "All I can remember is, Bob Willis had this big inswinging, in-dipping action," Darling says. "The ball was pitched well outside off stump was the last thing I remember. Once it swung in, it also cut in further. I was caught in no man's land. I was sort of caught out of position, and hit in the chest. Unfortunately, at the time, I was chewing a chewy, and I swallowed my tongue and chewy as well. That caused me to black out."
John Emburey was the first man to check on Darling, and he thumped his chest to push the gum out. Umpire Max O'Connell gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Play continued even as he was taken to hospital. Darling's next conscious moment was in the hospital. He was discharged in the night, and the next morning he resumed his innings on 0 not out after the fifth wicket had fallen. There was not a moment's thought given to letting Darling not bat if he didn't feel like it. When he came out to bat five down, spin was on, but he remembers there was no let-up in bouncers from Ian Botham.
"I knew the Englishmen would test me out as soon as I walked out," Darling says. "Ian Botham. Bob Willis. I remember facing Ian Botham when I went out there, and he did test me out. Fortunately enough I did hook him for a six, but I must admit it was more of a top edge. Adelaide Oval had quite short square boundaries, and it managed to clear them for a six. Of course he tested me out a few more times."
Darling was dismissed on 15. He batted in the second innings and made 18, but Australia - weakened by Kerry Packer defections - lost by 205 runs. Darling doesn't remember a big deal being made of his courage. And worse blows followed in his domestic career.
"I can't recall having nightmares about it [the near death], and never have," Darling says. "But probably the ones that hit me in the head later on in my career were a lot more detrimental than the one that hit me in the chest.
"The fact that it has caused long-term effects - I was probably hit badly in the head three or four times in my career. To the point where it has now caused what they call post-traumatic epilepsy. It's not a full-blown epilepsy attack, but more of a dizzy spell, sort of a blackout type. Only in the last 12 months has this been identified. Medication has fixed it up."
"I got back to hook and it went between the visor and the top part of the helmet and smashed in my eye. That finished me. After that, I didn't want to be there. I thought of other things I wanted to do in life"
There was another blow to his head, in what turned out to be his last Test, that sent him to Bombay Hospital, near Wankhede Stadium. Darling wishes to clarify that the stories that he was refused treatment until he signed autographs for doctors are apocryphal, although he remembers there being some requests for autographs.
"The one that finished my career was when I got hit in my eye by John Maguire from Queensland," Darling says. "John played a couple of Tests in the late '70s or early '80s or thereabouts. He got one to really rear up, and I got back to hook and it went between the visor and the top part of the helmet and smashed in my eye. That finished me. After that, I didn't want to be there. I thought of other things I wanted to do in life. Even though I continued playing on in Shield for two or three years, I just didn't want to be there."
Darling admits word might have gone around that he had a problem with the short ball. His confidence was gone, and family life beckoned.
Life comes full circle, though. While he himself has a peaceful gardening job at an old-age home, his son is now 21 - an opener and a wicketkeeper at A Grade level in Adelaide. Only last week he was facing Shaun Tait. Darling was a little concerned after the Hughes incident.
"After what happened to Phillip it goes through any parent's mind that something could happen. But what do you do? Do you walk away from the game or take that chance? Phillip's was probably one in 10 million. Not too many people die on the cricket pitch at first-class level. He's probably the first. One of those things that happen. But yes, I am a bit concerned now."
That's a concern Darling's father didn't have when Rick grew up hooking and cutting every time bigger, badder fast bowlers tried to bounce him.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo