Mark Boucher’s tragic injury thankfully struck him in the late evening of his career. Arunabha Sengupta looks at some cricketing careers that have been affected by problems with the eye at the peak of their powers – and in one curious case, long after retirement.
Luck has been known to play with the destinies of even her favourite cricketing sons, even the ones she touched with genius in the cradle. Denis Compton was crippled with a troublesome kneecap in the glorious noon of his career which had to be ultimately removed, and Archie Jackson, the man who many thought would be at least as good as Don Bradman, suffered from tuberculosis that ended his life at the tender age of 23.
In this regard, Mark Boucher’s injury has been fatal to his career, but has thankfully been dealt late in his cricketing life, while he perched at the proverbial peak of his profession, with a collection of international scalps that has no close second. He was anyways planning to retire by the end of the English tour. One can concoct a contrived near miss by adding all his catches and stumpings in the three forms of the game to a total tottering one short of 1000, but that does not take anything away from the champion competitor we have been privileged to witness all these years.
Hamstrings, knees, shoulders, heels, back and famed elbows – all the overworked parts of the cricketer’s anatomy undergo strain, stress and sometimes debilitating damage. However, if the target of affliction is the eye, the seriousness is magnified many a times.
Some of the careers which had promised much and might have been great but for the unfortunate problems with this most vital of organs are listed below:
A clean, natural hitter of the cricket ball who had an infectious zest for the game and life, Milburn was touted as the most exciting talent in English cricket. According to cricket writer Colin Bateman, he could “hit the ball with the strength of a lumberjack and he had the courage of a lion, but he was no Neanderthal clubber".
A precocious talent, he managed to force himself into the Test side at the top of the order in a land crammed with openers, managing a 94 in the second innings against West Indies on debut, following it up with 126 in the second Test.
Dropped because of his bulk and supposed laboured movement, he continued scoring runs and made his way back into the Test side as an emergency replacement in Pakistan and hit a scintillating 169 at Karachi, his last Test innings.
Soon after this, a fateful car crash permanently damaged his left eye, and although he remained full of cheer and bonhomie, and even returned to First-class cricket for a while, he was never again the brilliant hitter of yore, and never played for England again.
Michael Holding regarded him as the best batsman he had ever seen, and playing for the West Indies in the ’70s and ’80s, he had seen his share of them. Sir Garfield Sobers thought Rowe was an amazing talent who would go on to become the greatest West Indian batsman of all time.
He made 214 and an unbeaten 100 on his Test debut, and soon became the last man to score a triple century for almost two decades. Especially at Sabina Park, he was a phenomenon. An instinctive hooker and puller, he once received a bouncer from Bob Willis and, according to Gideon Haigh, “smashed it flat into the stand at square leg; it travelled most of the way at head height.”
However, his career soon went downhill, punctuated by problems with teryginum, a disease involving vision-blurring growths. His right eye was almost totally compromised, and his left was getting worse. Added to it, he had a strange affliction for a cricketer – allergy to grass. It was said, “If Lawrence sneezes, put the opposition in.”
Even then, in the 30 Tests that he managed to play, he scored over 2000 runs with seven hundreds and an average over 43.
Getting to be the English wicketkeeper in the wake of Alan Knott and with Bob Taylor around was never going to be easy, but Paul Downton was good enough to get his share of chances. And when he did, he kept with a reassurance that spoke of maturity far beyond his years. He was not too bad with the bat either, saving a Test in his very first series against the fearsome West Indian pace attack in their backyard, and when he travelled to India in 1984-85, during the initial part of the tour he definitely looked one of the most accomplished batsmen.
Yet, when he dropped catches, they tended to be expensive ones. And he was cast in the role of sacrificial lamb when English selectors chopped and changed to end the continuing series of defeats in the late eighties.
He could have made his way back into the side yet again, but for a freak accident that ended his career. He was standing up to the stump during a Sunday League match, when a dislodged bail struck him in the eye. What seemed to be a minor accident proved to be fatal for his career and he made a premature, yet ultimately successful, switch to become a stockbroker.
The Nawab did play a pivotal role as the captain of the Indian cricket team, making a slumbering nation wake up to realise that fielding was indeed one of the departments of the game, and that factionalism should be flushed out of the cricket field. He also brought his touch of the exotic in a staid period for the country, and sometimes his mercurial moves as a captain did turn the course of matches.
However, had his eye not been damaged at the age of 20 – in yet another car crash of the sixties with tragic cricketing results – he might have achieved greatness as a batsman that his career graph so amply promised.
Captain in his final year at Winchester in 1959, he scored 1,068 runs, surpassing Douglas Jardine's record, set 40 years earlier. At Oxford, he scored a century in his very first varsity match. In 1961, as captain of the University, he was on course to break his father’s record of 1,307 runs in a season. He had just scored centuries in each innings against a Yorkshire attack led by Fred Trueman when a Humber Super Snipe crashed into the passenger side of the Mini Minor he was riding, a shard of broken glass entering his right eye, destroying it forever.
It was the immense resolve of a man largely regarded as a privileged dilettante that saw him score six centuries in the 46 Tests that he played for India. Yet, one cannot but help but wonder what might have been if he saw the ball as well as his fellow men.
And curiously …
We add one more seldom recounted case of a cricketer playing with one eye, although this was more of a deliberate reversal of trend – a forced plunge from heights of greatness to depths of mediocrity.
When the Prince of a small state had passed out of cricket, he had been hailed as the “King of a Great Game”. Neville Cardus had been moved to write, “When Ranji passed out of cricket, a wonder and a glory departed from the game forever.”
The man who brought oriental mystique to the game, the finesse and fleet footed flourishes, was an overweight caricature of his earlier self when he returned to play a few games for Surrey after the First World War. He had lost an eye by then, in a shooting accident, and had somehow convinced himself to write a sequel to his classic Jubilee Book of Cricket with a volume on how to bat with one eye.
The few forays to the wicket earned him 39 runs at 9.75, and this was surely a swansong that he would have been wiser to avoid. Thankfully, people remember the magic of his earlier days, when light from the east shone on the English grounds, and this brief short-sighted encore has been relegated to obscure pages of Wisden.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)