A shell shocked and broken England side was touring to New Zealand in February 1975. They were completely devastated after losing the Ashes 4-1 to the mighty Australians. After facing the fearsome pace attack of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson the English had no idea what they would have to face in the Kiwi land.
It was a short two-test. First test match began on February 20 at Auckland. Batting first England made the best of the opportunity after a nightmare at the Ashes. Keith Fletcher led the way with 216 along with Mike Denness who scored 181. Their partnership of 266 helped England to score a mammoth 593/6, declared. New Zealand after being all out on 326 in their first innings followed on. It was almost a repeat telecast of the first innings for the Kiwis as they kept losing wickets in regular intervals.
New Zealand were at 140 for 9 late on the fourth afternoon. Geoff Howarth was still on the crease when a certain 24-year old fast bowler Ewen Chatfield joined in. It was Chatfield’s debut match. However, the pair continued for the last half hour before bad light brought an end to the fourth day. This caused frustration for almost all except the Kiwis. With only one wicket left to fall and New Zealand still requiring 105 runs to make England bat again the game ended on day four. There was a rest day in between the fourth and fifth day which meant all had to wait for another two days. As the forecast for the fifth day was not much better, there was still a glimmer of hope left for the home side.
They play resumed on day five with the not out batsmen Howarth and Chatfield on the crease. Peter Lever, Lancashire’s fast bowler, and medium-pace spinner Derek Underwood opened the bowling. But the not out duo were not ready to surrender so easily. They continued for another 35 minutes. They managed to take the score to 181 for 9.
Finally the debutant, Chatfield gave one small chance. A delivery almost went for a catch to one of the short-leg fielders. Lever finally found the way to break the pair. He admitted later, “I thought this was the way to get him … I brought in two close fieldsmen and aimed another one at the glove”. Lever went for a short delivery. Chatfield turned his head away but still tried to fend the ball. It deflected off his gloves and hit his head. “I lost sight of it and I knew it had hit me on the head,” Chatfield recalled, “For a few seconds I staggered and then fell over.”
There was no doctor present on the ground. Bernard Thomas, the England Physiotherapist was witnessing everything from the No. 1 stand but didn’t react immediately. But as soon as he realized the importance of the situation he was in action accompanied by a local ambulanceman.
Thomas realized that Chatfield had swallowed his tongue. So he asked for resuscitation equipment first but unfortunately, it wasn’t there. According to him, “It was the worst case I have seen and I never want to see another,” he said later. “His heart had stopped beating and technically that’s the sign of dying.”
An unconscious but stabilized Chatfield was taken from the field on a stretcher and rushed to hospital in an ambulance, accompanied by the English physiotherapist, Thomas. On their way, he came in sense, opened his eyes and asked Thomas what was happening. “Don’t worry,” Thomas assured him. It took half an hour to regain Chatfield’s full consciousness. A hairline fracture on his skull was detected.
Lever didn’t know how to deal with the situation. He was all shivering and sobbing. He was confirmed that he had killed the batsman. “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.” He left the field behind the stretcher weeping. He visited the hospital twice and finally was a bit relieved when Chatffield himself convinced him that accident was his own fault.
It was a bizarre scenario for English bowlers, especially after being smashed by the Aussies at the Ashes. Henry Blofeld in the Guardian wrote: “It was the final and appalling irony that one of the England bowlers, who had ducked and weaved himself through Australia, should himself have come very close to killing Chatfield.”
The incident gave birth to a worldwide debate on the legitimacy of bouncers, especially those aimed at tailenders. But obviously, nothing changed. In fact, West Indies were subjected to almost the same treatment by Australia. The fast bowling attack and the bouncers have been part of glorious cricket history since the beginning. The battle of 22yards has been blessed by the deadly fast bowlers for years. Introduction of the helmet has been a savior in this case.
Also Read: On This Day – 24th Feb