Sports: Another young cricketer killed by a body ball

Sri Lankan-born cricketer Bavalan Pathmanathan, 24, has played his last innings in this lifetime and died doing it. Far from home in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, he succumbed to a chest injury after being struck by a cricket ball during a weekend game in Long Ditton, Surrey, England, July 5. He was playing for the Manipay Parish Sports Club in the British Tamil League, was rushed to Kingston hospital where he died.

 Bavalan Pathmanathan  was playing in the British Tamil League in Surrey

Bavalan Pathmanathan was playing in the British Tamil League in Surrey

According to a Telegraph report, Jeeva Rukshan, who was also batting with Pathmanathan said: “When he received the hit, I asked from the other end if he is alright. He gave a thumbs-up and nodded to indicate he was alright, while pressing his chest. He took a couple of steps behind the stumps and collapsed”.

The British Tamils Cricket League mourned in a statement: “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic death of our fellow cricketer Pathmanathan. His untimely loss has left a devastating effect on our member clubs and on our cricket community as a whole…. “

The global cricket community was devastated when Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died last November after being hit on head by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match between his team South Australia
and New South Wales in Sydney. Player safety and the use of intimidating bowling became a searing topic of discussion – only to be buried quickly as it being all “part of the game”. Tell that to
the parents and family of Pathmanathan.

The horrific video of Hughes keeling over and fatally falling face down traumatized a sport that unfortunately too soon dismissed his death as “accidental”. Pathamanathan’s death would have been truly accidental if the cricketing fraternity had the common sense to ban the bouncer after Hughes died.

On December 5, 2014, I sent an email to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, leading cricketers Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri before the start of India’s series in Australia with this request:

“For well-being of cricket and cricketers, now and future, India has to show leadership — in following the New Zealand team that won a rare away Test match in the UAE against Pakistan without bowling a single bouncer. Winning a million games is not worth risking a human life. A bouncer is always a risk, a gamble with serious injury or death — there can be no fatality for the next 100 years, or there could be
another in the very next game, the very next bouncer bowled. Let no Indian bowler go through what Sean Abbot is going through. Let no family go through what Phil Hughes’ family is now going through.”

India’s quick bowlers bowled a bouncer within the first 30 minutes of cricket’s first international match after Hughes’s death. Cricket lost a great chance for change during a sensitive phase in its history, and now another young cricketer has lost his life; his family is re-living the horror of Greg and Virginia Hughes, parents of Phillip who left to play a game of cricket and returned home in a coffin, killed by a bouncer.

The death of 25-year-old Hughes was not ‘very, very freakish’ as widely reported. It was dangerous denial describing it as “unexpected”. The freakishness then and now is more cricketers not suffering serious head or chest injuries – not when fast bowlers deliberately aim bone-breaking blows at the batsman’s head and body.

During his playing days, former Australian speedster Jeff Thomson cheerfully admitted he loved to see batsmen hit, and see blood on the pitch. He now would not have that particular love to include seeing his cricketer son Matthew Thomson’s blood spilled on the pitch, or worse have him suffer the same fate as Hughes and Pathmanathan.

This is cricket’s gross delusion of ‘he-man’ status, a fake test of testosterone-driven ‘courage’ that has cricket ‘experts’ continually hailing the guts it takes to face a cricket ball sometimes hurtling along at 150-km, and fast enough to maim one, if not kill.

The three stumps on the pitch are the legitimate target, according to rules of the game. No runs /points in cricket for short-pitched balls breaking heads, jaw, rib cages, fingers, forearms and toes. Tennis champions Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic do not slam tennis balls at each other’s body as test of courage and skills. And Nadal and Djokovic suffer no shortage of mental toughness.

Mental toughness comes with iron determination and skills to overcome a difficult and seemingly hopeless situation. Yet batsmen tackling balls aimed at their bodies is considered part of mental toughness. Of course it takes courage to face a fatality-loaded cricket ball, but what’s the point? Defying death in a sport or a weekend game seems an utter, senseless waste of a life.

Bowling aimed at the batsmen’s body was a tactic made most famous with the Bodyline series of 1932-33  in which England captain Doug Jardine used his fast bowlers Harold Larwood and Co. to target Australia’s prolific run getter Don Bradman. Next was Clive Lloyd’s lethal battery of West Indian fast bowlers of the 1980s. Their brutality was chillingly captured in the award-winning documentary Fire In Babylon. Maybe as poetic justice from gods of cricket, West Indies went into a decline from which it has never recovered.

Cricket’s bouncer is more brawn over brain. As fast bowling experts know very well, a quick bowler’s frequent wicket-taking delivery is not the bouncer but the ball pitched full, at a line and length hitting  top of off stump, or outside off stump inducing the batsman to edge to slips. In fact, in all formats of cricket, the slow spin bowlers – not the speedsters – rank as top of wicket takers. Since the first ever cricket Test match in 1877, the three-leading wicket takers are spinners Muthiah Muralidharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble. They did not have to aim the cricket ball at anyone’s chest or head when bagging 2,127 wickets among them.

Even a high risk sport as Formula One racing does not allow drivers to deliberately endanger each other. Yet ‘gentlemanly’ cricket officially permits bowlers to target the batsman’s head – with fatal results.

The first reported cricket fatality was in 1870, in a match between MCC and Nottinghamshire, when 25-year-old batsman George Summers was hit on the head by a short-pitched ball from John Platt. Summers was carried off the field, taken to hospital and he died four days later.

Whether in 1870, November 2014, or July 2015, a cricket ball aimed at the chest or head is a tragedy ticking to happen — with or without faulty protective equipment or batting techniques. History, the wise said, is a vast early warning system. Pathmanathan may have been alive today if cricketers had paid more respect to the death of Hughes.

Raja Murthy is a journalist based in Mumbai, India



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