The gladiatorial encounter between bowler and batsman is both bewitching and brutal. We hope and pray that with improvements to protective gear, concussion protocols and available medical care that we never again see anything like the terrible death of Philip Hughes in 2014.
The story of former Indian captain Nari Contractor over 50 years earlier, whilst close to tragedy, also has a remarkably heart-warming side as players of both the sides immediately lined up to donate blood to Nari as he lay fighting for his life in hospital. Five of them including Sir Frank Worrell, Bapu Nadkarni, Polly Umrigar, Chandu Borde, and Prabhu, a journalist had the same B+ blood group and immediately answered the call for help. Had they not, Nari may not have survived.
Contractor had been picked to lead India to the Caribbean in 1961-62 but it proved a tough trip from the off. West Indies won the first two Tests by large margins and Contractor’s form was poor, with just 26 runs in four innings.
After defeat in the second Test, at Sabina Park, the Indians travelled to Barbados for a game against a side that boasted the fearsome pace attack of Charlie Griffith, Wes Hall and George Rock. At the time, the 23-year-old Griffith was an unknown quantity outside Barbados; his only Test appearance had come two years earlier.
Initially, despite warnings from Frank Worrell as to the perils they faced, Contractor and Dilip Sardesai had dealt with the bowling well. As they walked back to the pavilion for lunch, Sardesai turned to Contractor and smiled. “Fast, my foot.” Griffith, however, went up a gear after lunch, although there were questions about his action and indeed, Contractor’s new partner Rusi Surti shouted down the pitch to his captain after two balls of the fateful over that he thought Griffiths was chucking.
There are varying accounts as to what happened on the fifth ball. Some say it was a bouncer, others that it was just short of a length and Contractor ducked into it. Wisden was in no doubt:
“Contractor did not duck into the ball. He got behind it to play at it. He probably wanted to fend it away towards short-leg, but could not judge the height to which it would fly, bent back from the waist in a desperate, split-second attempt to avoid it and was hit just above the right ear.”
Indian allrounder Chandu Borde and one those that helped save Contractor, recalls “He (Griffith) bowled a bouncer which Nari tried to duck. That bouncer hit on his right side because being a left-hander his right side was towards the bowler. He fell down. Nari said that he was in a lot of pain”.
The reality was that Contractor was very seriously injured indeed. Within a minute he had started bleeding from his nose and ears. He was helped from the middle by Ghulam Ahmed, the Indians’ manager. In the pavilion, Contractor changed his bloodied clothes but the bleeding continued and he was rushed to hospital where the local surgeon although not a specialist did enough to relieve the pressure on Contractor’s brain. In stabilising him, it bought enough time to enable the neurosurgeon to carry out a second operation when he finally arrived the next day.
As multiple blood transfusions were needed, the Indian and West Indian Cricketers stepped forth. “Worrell’s gesture, coming from the opposition, showed the game transcended boundaries,” Borde said.
Contractor regained full consciousness after six days and spent some time recuperating in Barbados with his wife, who had flown in to be by his side, before returning to India. Before he did so, Griffith said Contractor told his wife, who had gone to visit him: “Charlie is not to blame… it was all my fault.”
Charlie Griffith, who had visited Contractor in hospital, went on to play 28 Tests for West Indies and was reckoned to be one of the fastest bowlers of his generation. He was only no-balled twice in his career – once in this match and again in 1966 in a tour match against Lancashire.
India were beaten by an innings against Barbados. They went on to lose the Test series 5-0. Contractor was replaced as captain by the 21-year-old Nawab of Pataudi and sadly, whilst he heroically returned to first class cricket briefly, he was unable to return to the test arena.
The incident sparked widespread calls to ban bouncers completely in the aftermath of the incident, but Contractor, speaking a month after being hit, said he was against such proposals. Looking back in later years, Contractor told the Hindu: “Those were days when there were no helmets, no restriction on the number of bouncers in an over and no restrictions on beamers either. The pitches were uncovered. But it was the same for everyone then and we were prepared for the challenge. No complaints.”
Most importantly, Nari Contractor is still with us at the age of 86. Destiny ultimately smiled upon him and for that he can thank the selfless actions and B+ blood of Sir Frank Worrell, Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni, Polly Umrigar and journalist KH Prabu.