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Sultan of Seam: How a rubbish bin helped Richard Hadlee to greatest Test performance!

Some time in 1983, at the prime of his career, a depressed and world-weary Hadlee had thought about taking his own life.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai | Updated: June 16, 2016 10:34 am
sir richard hadlee, hadlee wickets, richard hadlee bowling, richard hadlee cricket, richard hadlee on Day night cricket test, pink ball test, cricket news, indian cricket news Hadlee had to battle severe depression at the peak of his career. (Source: PTI)

No, Richard Hadlee isn’t one of those 57 who want to become India’s coach. Over the years, the legendary Hadlee, sultan of seam more than swing, has talked about rhythm, offstump, desire, and Lillee (“what would Lillee do now” was the question he posed himself in tough situations) as the four key mantras that drove him to greatness. On Thursday, in Mumbai for his charitable trust, he talked about his fifth: a trash bin.

It was a question about his greatest bowling performance in Tests – 9 for 52 in the first innings and 6 for 71 in the second in 1985 at the Gabba that helped New Zealand win their first Test series triumph in Australia. The technical change had come before the start of the series during preparation at the behest of the coach Glenn Turner, proving how even legends need a bit of push and guidance.

Turner had spotted that Hadlee was bowling too wide off the stumps and was losing his wicket-taking wizardry as a result. “He noticed in the build-up games that I was bowling mid crease, and he said I’ve got to get you closer to the stumps so you’re bowling more wicket to wicket,” Hadlee said.

Turner stood behind the stumps, as an umpire would, to observe Hadlee closer. “ After a couple of balls, I said to him, you’re pushing me a bit wider, can you just stand back a bit. So, I got a bit closer.” Turner went further behind and so it went, till both decided on the perfect distance for Turner (and umpires later in matches) to stand. Six feet. “We worked out that it was six feet behind the stumps.”

They scratched a line at the spot, and after a while Turner left Hadlee to his devices but only after the both had placed a rubbish bin at that scratch mark, six feet behind the stumps. “We put a rubbish bin as an umpire. So, a rubbish bin got 33 wickets in that series, effectively! Because I got so close to the wicket, had the outswinger going, the off-cutter, bowling good lines, good channels. We caught 90 per cent of the catches behind the wicket.. Just one little thing that somebody had picked up that can make a big difference.”

Hadlee capped the nostalgia dramatically: “And I had great rhythm, I was fit, and the Aussies exploded!” Explode they did. The two spells from that match can be seen on YouTube, and they are worth a watch. The short run-up, that he formulated after a county season in 1980, particularly after a Sunday league competition that that only allowed 15-yard run-up, was already a game changer in his career, and when he cracked the art of coming as close to stumps as possible, he ramped up his effectiveness even more. “That change in 1985-86 effectively got me a lot more wickets in the last four years of my career.” A year after he retired, he found that there was a small hole in his heart (“Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome”) which had led to irregular heartbeat through his career. He underwent an open-heart surgery to correct it in 1991.

That was at the end of the career. But there was another health crisis that he faced during his career at its peak, a battle with severe depression. He didn’t speak about it in this interaction but on an earlier such visit in 2013, in Bangalore, he had opened up. His inspiring fight is worth repeating here.

Some time in 1983, at the prime of his career, a depressed and world-weary Hadlee had thought about taking his own life. It started of as a series of peculiar urges before the full import tore him apart. A crooked picture on the wall, a dead fly, and even driving around with his wife set him off.

“I had to go and straighten the picture. I have got to pick up the dead fly because, it’s annoying me. It shouldn’t be there, I get in the car with my wife and want to go for a drive and then after a few minutes I don’t want to be in the car, I don’t want to be out there in public, so they were the issues I was confronted with, so I just removed myself from all that to become quite reclusive and you just got to take a step back.”

The first sign of trouble had come a few months prior. Hadlee was traveling and making public appearances – a charity game here, a book signing there, when he started suffering from heat strokes. “A heat stroke and you collapse. All of a sudden you get chest pains, headaches, you get home and think ‘what’s wrong with me?,” Hadlee reflected.

It came to a point where Hadlee contemplating quitting cricket. “The question was do you want to play cricket anymore, and the answer was No.” Eventually, the urge to play returned and he realised the first step of the solution involved accepting he had a problem. “Otherwise you are keeping it inside, and there’s this denial that you think ‘everything’s alright,’ but in fact it’s not alright; Of course it was tough, because you think at times that you are invincible, you think ‘why should it happen to me?’ But I am no different from anyone else, I can have any sort of health issue that anyone else can have. But you can overcome these problems, you can be repaired, you can get back on track by fronting up and by talking about it.”

He returned to cricket stronger. And that rubbish bin also helped.

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