On February 25, 1975, former New Zealand No 11 Ewen Chatfield didn’t have the best of debuts, when he was struck on his head by a short-pitched delivery by England’s Peter Lever, and his heart stopped beating. Jaideep Vaidya narrates how Chatfield survived to take 123 Test victims in what was to be a 14-year career.
In the 135-year history of cricket, there have been some great debuts, and then there have also been some bad ones. While we’ve seen a Lawrence Rowe score a double century and a hundred in either innings of his debut match, we’ve also had players like Saeed Anwar bag a pair in his first match. Where a Narendra Hirwani scalped 16 victims in his first Test, a Shane Warne recorded an analysis of 45-7-150-1 in his first outing.
However, there aren’t many players in this world who almost got killed in their debut match. Former New Zealand medium-fast bowler Ewen Chatfield was one such guy, and probably the only one.
Chatfield played 43 Tests and 114 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) for the Kiwis in a 14-year international career. He bagged 123 and 140 victims in either format and was known as one of the most accurate bowlers of his era. He had three five-wicket and one ten-wicket hauls to his name at a healthy average of 32.18 in Tests. However, none of those statistics would’ve been recorded if not for the intervention of a physio from the opposition camp in his debut match at Auckland.
The occasion was the first of the two Tests that England were playing in New Zealand following a long, rather disastrous tour of Australia. The deadly duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had played a major hand in Australia’s annihilation of England 4-1. Battered and bruised, quite literally, the Englishmen had jumped the Tasman Sea rather unwillingly to play New Zealand; they were yearning to get back home.
The tour of New Zealand seemed to be heading towards a better result. Keith Fletcher (216) and Mike Denness (183) had put on a 266-run fourth-wicket partnership to help England post 593 for the loss of six wickets before declaring. In response, New Zealand had been bowled out for 326 and were asked to follow-on. The second innings for the hosts was worse as they found themselves tottering at 140 for nine when No 11 Chatfield joined Geoff Howarth in the middle on Day Four.
England probed and targeted Chatfield, who had a duck to his name in the first innings. They wanted to wrap up the Test match on Day Four itself, since there was a rest day between the fourth and fifth days. However, Chatfield and Howarth held together a stubborn last-wicket stand to frustrate England and eventually took the match to Day Five.
In the morning session of the final day, “Geoff and I frustrated them for about 45 minutes and there was a chance of rain,” Chatfield told the BBC later in an interview. It was then that Chatfield almost paid for all the resistance with his life, as Peter Lever ran in to bowl to the No 11 with two close-in fielders.
“England were getting a bit annoyed that they couldn’t get one of us out, but then I was hit,” said Chatfield. Contrary to popular belief, Lever hadn’t bowled a bouncer. “It was a short ball that hit the top of the bat handle and ricocheted into my temple. I remember being hit and feeling a little giddy so I stepped to the side and sat down.” Chatfield twitched around on the ground a little, as a helpless, distraught Lever looked on. Soon enough, Chatfield lost consciousness and his heart stopped beating. As it turned out, he had swallowed his tongue!
“God, I bowled the ball too straight and he couldn’t get out of the way,” said Lever to reporters later. Lever sobbed and was inconsolable as Chatfield was being tended to. Since it was the last day of the Test with just one wicket to fall, there was no official medical staff present at the ground. However, as luck would have it, Bernard Thomas, the England physiotherapist, decided to step in and help the ‘enemy’.
“I was aware I was a guest and it was a New Zealand Cricket situation,” said Thomas, as quoted by ESPNcricinfo. However, looking at the seriousness of the situation and pleas for help from the fielders, Thomas ran in along with a local paramedic.Thomas realised that Chatfield had swallowed his tongue, and performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, before transporting Chatfield to a hospital via an ambulance. “It was the worst case I have seen and I never want to see another,” he later said. “His heart had stopped beating and technically that’s the sign of dying.”
Meanwhile, Lever was still inconsolable as he thought he had killed Chatfield. “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.”
However, Chatfield regained consciousness in the ambulance. “The next thing I remember is waking up in the ambulance and being told that I had swallowed my tongue,” he told the BBC. “It was a good job Bernard Thomas was there or I wouldn’t be around today.”
He was later to admit that it was his own poor reflexes, rather than Lever’s aggression, that caused the mishap. “If any one thing did worry me going into this game, it was just what did happen,” he said the following 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’s a nice fellow.”
While Chatfield was discharged in a day, with a hairline fracture to his skull no less, it was almost two years before he played his next match for New Zealand. “I did not play again all season,” he said. “By April though I was playing football and heading the ball without any problems.”
It was this horrific, near-death incident that really triggered the introduction of helmets in cricket. India’s Nari Contractor had been hit by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith in 1962, following which there was some chatter, but it was Chatfield who, unintentionally so, was majorly responsible for getting batsmen to protect their heads.
Chatfield was later to see the funny side. Asked if he developed a fear for short-pitched deliveries following the incident, he said, “I never really had a fear of the short ball in particular; I was just wary of most deliveries.”
It wasn’t the best of debuts you’ll see in world cricket. Following a wicketless bowling analysis, Chatfield had followed it up with a duck and then almost died. However, he went on to form a formidable bowling pair along with Richard Hadlee after his rehabilitation. Even so, there are some incidents that continue to be associated with a person regardless of his other more formidable feats. Chatfield learned to live with it. “It was perhaps not the best debut, but it was at least memorable and gets brought up again now and then,” he said.
As of 2009, Chatfield earns his livelihood driving a cab around Wellington.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)