Five years back from Vietnam, he could sense that something inside of him was unravelling

Greg Milam’s And Bring the Darkness Home is a haunting exploration of how the mental scars of war destroyed the international cricket career of Tony Dell, the only Test cricketer to have served in Vietnam. In our third and final extract, Dell is bowling well enough to play a second Test but then retires from international cricket. Something is not quite right.

Queensland had finished rock bottom of the Shield in that season of 1972/73. The following year though, they were transformed. Chappell’s captaincy and epic run-scoring – he made more than anyone else in Australia that season and twice as many as any of his new Queensland team-mates – meant they were suddenly a different proposition. The swashbuckling Pakistani batsman Majid Khan – one of only a handful of batsmen to score a century before lunch on the first day of a Test match – added an international flavour to a team that went unbeaten in its first seven matches. Tony Dell was on fire too. Only four bowlers in the country would end the season with more than his 43 wickets.

Against the touring New Zealanders in December at the Gabba, he took six wickets in each innings as Queensland rolled over the Kiwis in two days of a scheduled four-day game. Finishing a match with figures of 12-63 on a Saturday was especially fortuitous. The Australian selectors were due to meet on Monday to pick the Test team to face the shell-shocked New Zealanders. ‘Dell was the real star of the match,’ raved one report, suggesting that he ‘undoubtedly has more to offer as a Test player.’

Dell’s return to the international scene was duly confirmed. At 28 years old, once again it seemed his sporting career was back on track. The reaction in the cricketing community was positive; here was a bowler with experience and the capability to unsettle batsmen of international calibre. Another Ashes series was a year away and Tony Dell was back among the cricketing elite. At least that’s how it appeared.

The first Test was played at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground, a stadium so vast it once held a crowd of 120,000 for an Australian Rules football final. The match straddled the New Year and proved to be almost as one-sided as the Kiwis’ warm-up game against Dell and Queensland. The Aussies piled up a huge first innings total and dismissed the New Zealanders cheaply twice. Tony Dell’s only wicket in the match was that of opening batsman Glenn Turner. In truth, he was overshadowed in the first innings by debutant Gary Gilmour, like him a fast left-arm bowler, and by the spinners Kerry O’Keefe and Ashley Mallett in the second innings. As a comeback, apparently in the form of his life, it was an anticlimax and the reviews of Dell’s performance were underwhelming. It had been agreed that he, Gilmour and Max Walker would share the two opening bowling spots over the first two Test matches. Consequently, Walker took Dell’s place for the second Test in Sydney.

As Dell watched the action from the pavilion as twelfth man at the Sydney Cricket Ground that early January, he felt unsettled. Five years back from Vietnam, he could sense that something inside of him was beginning to unravel. What those feelings were, what they meant, he couldn’t put into words. For a sportsman it was easier to focus on other reasons for the unease.

During that Test, Dell asked for a quiet chat with Neil Harvey. The Aussie batting legend turned selector had twice seen enough potential in Dell to pick him for his country. Now, in January 1974, Dell told Harvey he had had enough.

‘Queensland fast bowler Tony Dell has told Australian Test selector Neil Harvey he feels he is washed up as a Test bowler,’ read The Age in Melbourne. He did not want to be considered for the next Test match nor for a tour to New Zealand the following month. The message was simple: Dell was done with Test cricket. He told the newspaper his groin had troubled him for years and a damaged shoulder meant he could no longer put his back into his bowling. He could play state cricket, he said, but that was that.

Dell got his wish: he was dropped from the squad for the final Test. ‘He claims he has become a bowling wreck,’ read a newspaper report on the affair. Two Test matches in three years, and Dell’s career at the top level was finished.

In old age, he had no recollection of telling selectors or reporters about any excessive physical toll of bowling. There was something else that made no sense to him by then. Within days he was playing for Queensland again and would play all of their remaining games that season. In those four matches he bowled close to 100 eight-ball overs. On top of that, he says, there were the ‘hundreds we used to bowl in practice. In those days we didn’t have ground bowlers or bowling machines. The only way batsmen got practice was from us. It wasn’t uncommon to bowl for two and a half hours. What groin? What shoulder?’

Why then would he have blamed wear and tear on his body for giving up top-level cricket? Back then, he says, physical injuries were a better excuse. In other words, no one talked about mental health, certainly not in the macho world of top-level sport.

More information:

Yesterday: The “cyclone from the north”: How Dell made Barry Richards rewire the software

First extract: Dell had seen veterans turn to drink and drugs: You weak bastards, he would think