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When Bill Johnston had a near-death experience in South Africa

After Bill Johnston met with an accident in South Africa during the tour of 1949-50, it took him six days to personally convey the news to his mother © Getty Images
After Bill Johnston met with an accident in South Africa during the tour of 1949-50, it took him six days to personally convey the news to his mother. Image Source: Wikipedia

Nowadays cricketers can tweet every single event and non-event of their lives for the consumption of the entire world. However, there was a time when it was extremely difficult to contact even family members when away on tours.Arunabha Sengupta recalls the harrowing experience of Bill Johnston and his family during the 1949-50 tour of South Africa.

 

October 27, 1949.

 

It was way before the age of pushbutton tweets.

 

Bill Johnston was just hoping for a good time. He had met a pretty young thing at the local Netball association. The day before the tour match against Natal, the left-arm lynchpin of the Australian attack set out for Pinewood, eager to meet her on their first date.

 

He never got there.

 

On a poorly lit stretch of road near Rossburgh, Johnson missed a turn, skidded on gravel and concertinaed his car near a railway underpass. According to his statement later, “The steering wheel was the shape of my chest, I seemed to have a nine-iron divot out of my skull from the rear-view mirror, and I realised that I must have been injured internally, because I was spitting out blood.”

 

The police arrived after a signalman had raised alarm. However, Johnston revealed his identity and implored them not to publicise the accident. He was taken to the Addington Hospital where a doctor applied Friar’s balsam to his head and lip. “Jeez, Doc, do ya reckon you could give me a couple of Aspros?” the bowler asked, still writhing in agony.

 

Chappie Dwyer, manager of the touring side, soon arrived in a huff with local liaison manager Sid Pegler in tow. “I heard you were dead,” he blurted. “Thank God you’re alive.” The manager made efforts to dodge the press, but somehow the incident became known. In the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s morning news, it was announced that Johnston had suffered several head injuries. This was exactly why Johnston had been insistent on privacy.

 

Johnston’s mother was a widow living in Sydney, who had already lost a son during the War. She listened to the bulletin and fainted.

 

And in those days of the late 1940s, Australia was really an island far far away from the rest of the world. Shifted to a Durban nursing home, Johnston spent three days trying to telephone home. However the cable that ran through London to Sydney remained constantly busy. It was Thursday on which Johnston met with the accident. It took him six days before he could contact his mother on the following Wednesday – to inform her that she had not been left alone in the world.

 

Keith Miller – infamously omitted from the original side – was flown in as reinforcement. Johnston could play his next game of the tour only on December 16, against a South African XI at Durban. But, by then he was fit enough to bowl over 30 overs in the innings.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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