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Heartbeat

powerleagueMy company’s 5-a-side team had spent 12 months being taken apart by streetwise sides in one of inner city Manchester’s evening leagues. But displaying the virtues of application, teamwork and finding a ringer or two, the double digit defeats (32-1, 29-0) were behind us and we were competing.

Our rise towards 5-a-side football competence is relevant because I remember feeling excited as I leant against the mesh fencing behind a goal, gulping air and talking to Laurie. Five or six minutes into the game and we were leading. Laurie and I had finished a shift (of five or six minutes) and been substituted – regular replenishment by fresh legs was another factor in our rise.

Laurie, I recall, was about to say something to me. With my attention divided between the continuing game and my colleague, I saw him fall backwards with the rigidity of a felled tree. Within seconds he had people – players from other matches – attending to him. I ran to the office to get an ambulance called.

Laurie didn’t make it. Heart failure. In his mid-40s, he was fit. Thursday evenings he played 5-a-side with us. Weekends, he played on a team with his sons. But there was some impairment in his heart that had been dormant through so many exertions and then emerged to strike suddenly and irremediably.

The last time I recounted this story, I was taking a first aid refresher course to support the junior cricket coaching work I do. The course leader asked if anyone had experienced a situation where emergency first aid had been required. In a group of seven, there were two of us who had witnessed fatal heart attacks playing recreational sport – the other example was from a cricket match. Neither involved someone doing anything more intense or exacting than their routine.

It’s rare, yet common enough to be a story to have touched many families, friends, teammates and opponents. David Epstein, in ‘The Sports Gene’, writes about a fellow high school runner, a state champion, who collapsed and died within metres of crossing the finishing line. Epstein goes on to write about the genetic condition, hypertrobic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which is a kindred, equivalently grave, affliction to that diagnosed for James Taylor this week: Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyapathy (ARVC).

How could Taylor, I wondered, who has been around the England set-up, with its legion of backroom staff, for almost ten years, not have had this serious condition identified sooner, as part of routine health testing. Epstein may provide an answer; several, in fact.

To begin with, the most telling indicator of HCM is an enlarged heart, which also happens to be common among healthy athletes (AVRC also has symptoms that affect the structure of the heart that can be caused by other factors). Distinguishing between the medical condition and a well-developed muscle requires the input of an expert, of which Epstein wrote, “there are precious few in the world.”

Both conditions are inherited and caused by genetic mutation. Presence of the mutation does not however mean that serious symptoms will be experienced. Moreover the mutations vary greatly with many being restricted to a single family.

These uncertainties create a dilemma for clinicians diagnosing the conditions in athletes – they cannot tell which patients may be at risk of a sudden fatal heart malfunction. Understandably, the advice given will be to avoid physical exertion and so withdraw or retire from competitive sport, just as James Taylor has announced today. Epstein recalls that at his running friend’s funeral, his peers emphasised that the young man died doing what he loved – racing. Epstein demurs: “For me, there is scant solace in the poetic detail that he died running.”

James Taylor will now be deprived of the heightened experience of cricket played at its most intense: duelling with fast bowlers, challenging fielders with aggressive running and steeling himself not to flinch when crouched close at short-leg. Just as Epstein’s friend would have “eagerly rechanneled his competitive energy elsewhere,” and Laurie would have settled for watching his sons play football and to continue his active role in his family’s development and his own career, so Taylor will find another outlet for the ability, poise and commitment that took him, if only briefly, to the top of his sport. I hope he can find that fulfilment somewhere in cricket.

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The material on HCM is drawn from chapter 15 of ‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’, by David Epstein.

Quick single: Harmison draws Ponting’s blood

The opening session of the opening day of the 2005 Ashes. Steve Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord’s, hit Justin Langer on the elbow with the second ball of the day. A few overs later, Matthew Hayden tried to pull Harmison, missed the ball which continued its upward course to strike him on the helmet. Hayden fell shortly afterwards to Hoggard, bringing Ricky Ponting to the middle.

Harmison was bowling rapidly and with good rhythm. Into his sixth over, another pull shot attempted and missed. Ponting took a blow on the grill. For the second time that morning, the Australian physio was out in the middle, this time to staunch blood and patch-up the skipper’s face. Ponting batted on and in Harmison’s next over, drove at a ball outside off-stump and edged to be caught in the slips.

At the fall of each wicket that morning, and three more came before lunch, the crowd roared, rose to feet, arms up or fists pumped. The crowd’s response to each of the blows sustained by the Australian top three was just as unrestrained. Often, there’s a sense on the first morning of a Test, that the crowd needs to settle in, adjust to the pulse of a match due to last five days. That morning, though, there was a stronger alertness and anticipation. It was going to be a contest, closely fought, for the first time in years.

By batting first, Australia enabled England to lead off with their strong suit: four fast bowlers, varied in style and method. There was an anxiety, a yearning that England would, figuratively, draw first blood. The Lord’s crowd had sat and admired Australian batsmanship and rued hapless England bowling for years. This crowd on this morning wanted something different.

Alongside the anticipation for the game, there was a tension peculiar to this match. Cricket followers in England are cossetted, compared to their peers in some other countries, from the threat and experience of violence. Two weeks earlier, though, London had been struck by four suicide bombers. The city was on high alert and rumours rumbled like thunder. Bag and body searches were, if not introduced that year at Lord’s’ gates, stiffened. Sitting at Lord’s, watching Test cricket might feel defiant, or indulgent, but it also felt like being a juicy target for a terrorist intent on striking at western decadence.

Failed bomb attacks occurred that day in West London. On the second day of the Test, as Australia built a health second innings lead, police shot dead a mis-identified suspect in South London. This unsettling news swirled around the Lord’s crowd.

The hunger for England to finally knock over these Australians was the principal cause of the roars that greeted the blows to Langer, Hayden and, in particular, Ponting, that morning. The pent-up excitement at seeing England dictate terms, bursting out into shouts and displays of approval of violence. There was also a tension in the air, a mistrust and discomfort that may have infected the crowd’s response.

Ten years and almost twenty days of attending international cricket later, the first day of the 2005 Ashes series has imprinted the strongest impressions on my memory. The chain of incident of Ponting being struck, the crowd’s (and my) reaction, his removal of his helmet to find a trickle of blood, connects me closer to that intense morning than anything else.

Short pitch: Battle scar?

I’m not in the mood for much typing tonight. I returned from cricket with a sore thumb.

IMG_1108The question for you is, did I sustain this minor injury:

A: hitting my thumb with a mallet when setting up the stumps before the match;

B: fending off a bouncer;

C: shutting the car door on it when hurrying back to the house for my son’s spikes that he had left behind;

D: rolling the pitch covers over it when positioning them after the match.

Wearing one


Descriptive language tends in two directions. One is the hyperbolic, where the notable is ‘incredible’, the amusing is ‘hilarious’, the inconvenient is ‘a complete nightmare’. The other direction is careful or casual understatement and it is often found in situations of danger.

In cricket there’s little more dangerous than being hit by the ball. And so the understated, off-hand description of a batsman being struck on the head by a fast bowler may include ‘the ball got big on him’ for the moment prior to impact; ‘sconned’, not for an incident in the Great British Bake-off, but for the thud of the ball onto head; and ‘wearing one’ for the outcome of being unable to elude the speeding ball.

Rarely has ‘wearing one’ applied more literally to a cricketer than to Stuart Broad at Old Trafford on the third day of the fourth Test.

Broad’s innings was brief. He played no stroke to his first two balls, ducking under a short delivery from Pankaj Singh. The following over, looking to increase the scoring rate to build England’s lead quickly, Broad drove at a full ball from Varun Aaron, before hooking successive short balls for six.

The next ball, the sixth of Broad’s innings, was also a bouncer. Broad aimed another hook but, with the ball propelled at 87mph it may have bounced higher, he played under the ball, which arrowed towards his eyes. The momentum of the shot, rather than any move to avoid the ball, swung Broad’s head to the right so the ball crashed into his helmeted head facing midwicket, rather than the bowler. The ball, perhaps through some minor misalignment of the helmet’s grill, forced its way under the helmet peak, breaking Broad’s nose.

Broad swivelled and moved back past his leg stump, after a few steps crouched and waved to indicate help was needed. All the while, the ball was jammed against his face, pinned in place by the helmet’s grill.

I have found the image of Broad with the ball stuck hard against his face, inside the helmet, oddly unsettling. Much more so than the pictures of him bleeding onto the ground, or stitched and bruised. I cannot quite put my finger on what gives me such a strong instinctive reaction to that image, but I’ve tried to rationalise it and have identified the following possibilities and associations:

  • the sight of an object lodged fast against the face suggests not just injury, but suffocation. The damage caused is continuing and needs urgent alleviation, not merely treatment.
  • the ball is screening the wound, meaning the true extent of the injury has to be imagined until it is revealed.
  • a projectile bursting into a body references warfare – not missiles and bombs, but their deadly side-effect, shrapnel
  • it even conjures images of assaults by animals, their teeth or claws attached to the flesh
  • the picture, in my mind, that it most closely resembles is that of a victim of 1970s football hooliganism with a dart in the nose.

hooligan dart

Broad may return for the Oval Test, wearing a mask and wearing a replacement helmet when batting. If he does play, he’s sure to be tested with short-pitched bowling. Let neither he, nor anyone else, have the misfortune of ‘wearing one’ in that unsettling way.