May 08, 2008

Cricketers who shed blood, sweat … and tears

By H Natarajan

The sight of sporting heroes shedding tears often leaves an indelible mark in our minds because we assume these men to be granite strong - physically and mentally. Breaking down publicly is something we perceive as alien to their personality. We assume our heroes to be supermen, but behind the public veil they are almost as normal as anyone else. They may be super in their skills but they are as human as anyone else when it comes to emotions.

Sreesanth underlined the fact when he sobbed before live television cameras. It may well have been a scene from boys playing cricket in the neighborhood than the high-profile Indian Premier League – the playground of the most celebrated cricket talent in the world. The world has seen Sreesanth wearing the garb of a tough cookie, almost a bully - a David willing to take on towering Goliaths like Andrew Symonds and Andre Nel. Yet one tight slap across his face brought down the veil of Sreesanth’s tough image along with torrent of tears.

The young paceman is not the first cricketer to break down in public, though he may be the first to cry publicly for physical assault. There have been many, many instances in the past when cricketers have cracked under emotional stress.

One of the earliest known instances of a cricketer crying publicly was during the 1967 India-West Indies Test at Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then). The Eden Garden was bursting at the seams after local authorities sold more tickets than there were seats. Predictably, trouble erupted and the players had to run for their personal safety. As the mob let out its fury, speedster Charlie Griffith - a hulk of a man – ran for his life. He thought that the crowd was out to kill him in retaliation for ending Nari Contractor’s international career on India’s 1961-62 tour of the West Indies. The big-made Barbadian was reportedly crying as he ran, when in actual fact the spectators were trying to help him get to the safety of Grand Hotel after pockets of the stadium went up in flames on New Year’s Day.

Peter Lever, also a fast bowler, was another to experience distress after he had pole-axed Test debutant tail-ender Ewen Chatfield with a short ball. It hit Chatfield on the temple as he staggered and collapsed. He lost consciousness and was twitching and moaning. His heart had stopped. But for the timely intervention of England physio Bernard Thomas, Chatfield would have been dead. Lever, meanwhile, was on his knees crying bitterly. "I honestly thought I had killed him as I saw him lying there in convulsions. I felt sick and ashamed at what I had done and all I could think when I got back to the pavilion was that I wanted to retire." Mercifully, Chatfield survived and went on to enjoy a fairly long Test career.

A fast bowler broke down yet again in public – this time at Sydney in 1975. Michael Holding, playing just his third Test, saw the umpire Reg Ledwidge turned down a caught behind shout off his bowling against Ian Chappell. The young Jamaican could not contain his disappointment and burst into inconsolable tears and had to be comforted by Lance Gibbs who rushed in from gully.

International sports brings with it enormous stress and none feels it more than the captain as the buck finally stops with him. Australia had lost 0-3 against the West Indies in West Indies and followed that up by being 0-2 down at home. Kim Hughes, the Australian captain, was under pressure and he could take it no more. He walked into a press conference and announced his resignation as captain from a prepared statement, but could not finish reading it completely as he broke down in tears.

Indian men are generally known not to cry in public, but Dilip Vengsarkar proved to be among the exceptions after his valiant effort to give Mumbai victory in the 1990-91 Ranji Trophy final ended in the narrowest of failure – a two-run defeat – against Haryana. Vengsarkar was heart-broken at the other end on 139 after last man Abey Kuruvilla was run out. The sight of Vengsarkar sobbing and taking a long time to make his way into the gloom of the Mumbai dressing room is still fresh in my memory.

Vengsarkar’s Mumbai team-mate, the maverick Vinod Kambli, was another to break down publicly after match referee Clive Lloyd declared that India had defaulted its 1996 World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka at Eden Garden after the hosts failed to quell the crowd trouble that had erupted following India’s capitulation during the run-chase.

Another of India’s legendary cricketer, the tough Kapil Dev Nikhanj, famously broke down inconsolably on the Karan Thapar TV show, `Hardtalk India,' after he was accused by a team-mate, Manoj Prabhakar, of having sold himself to bookies. It was one of the most unbelievable and sad sights to see the strong fast bowler crying bitterly – his words an incoherent mess in the emotional turmoil.

The betting and match-fixing saga saw another public outburst when Hansie Cronje cried during his confessions before the King Commission in Cape Town. Cronje was another physically huge man and a superstar, but when emotions reach a critical point, it can break down the strongest of men.

One of the saddest displays of emotional outburst was when Adam Gilchrist broke down during a Test match in South Africa. One of the most loved and respected players in the world, Gilchirst broke down under the onslaught of rumors alleging sexual liaison between his wife Mel and Australian team-mate Michael Slater. A website published that Slater had an affair with Gilly’s wife Mel and went on to question the paternity of the couple’s child, Harrison.

Gilchrist penned his thoughts in his book, Walking to Victory: "I felt sick in the stomach. It was the start of the toughest period in my life. Mel was at home with three-month-old Harry, so we couldn't even be there for each other. Whatever I suffered, it was many times worse for Mel -- having her integrity abused like that when she is not even a public figure. “

Gilchrist said his emotional churn peaked in the course of his double hundred in the first Test against South Africa. “On reaching my ton, I did not know whether to jump for joy or give a determined 'up yours' to the crowd and whomever it was who had started the rumour. In the end, I had no control over my reaction. I simply ran off the wicket, raised my bat to acknowledge the team and the support staff, felt the emotions bubble up and squatted with my head down. It was the first time I remember crying on the cricket field."

The Gilchrist couple went on to sue the website and the matter was subsequently settled out of court.

Retirement is another time when a player faces emotional upheaval of having to leave the turf that has given him so much for him and his family for many, many years. Leaving all that and going into a whole new world is a life death for many. Even a big man like Inzamam-ul-Haq could not bottle up his emotions till he reached the privacy of the dressing room when he cried publicly when given a guard of honor in his farewell ODI.

As the Jewish proverb goes, what soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.

Tears are perfectly natural and shows the human side of the mega stars.

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