'I was targeted': Darling relives hits of brutal era – cricket.com.au

Rick Darling never took a backward step to short-pitched bowling as Australia opener in the late 1970s, but the approach took its toll – both then, and later in life
20 December 2022, 04:42 PM AEST
As opinions were traded on whether the Gabba pitch for last weekend's Test between Australia and South Africa was dangerous and had potentially placed batters in peril, it's easy to imagine Rick Darling wearing a rueful smile back home in Adelaide.
Darling doesn't slavishly follow the international game these days despite his cricket credentials as a dashing batter and electric cover fielder across 14 Tests and 18 one day internationals between 1978 and 1982.
Rather, the now 65-year-old is busy working three or four days a week as a landscape gardener to help cover medical costs that escalated following a heart attack 18 months ago that required a quadruple bypass.
The heart issue isn't directly attributable to the pummelling he copped as an opener in an era where fast bowling reached peak brutality before the arrival of proper protective equipment, although he came close to death when hit in the chest by a Bob Willis bouncer in an Ashes Test at Adelaide Oval in 1979.
The crowd of more than 20,000 at his home ground was silenced as Darling crumpled to the pitch, choked on the gum he was chewing and swallowed his tongue as he lost consciousness.
England spinner John Emburey instinctively thumped the stricken batter's chest to dislodge the gum, before Australia team physiotherapist Michael Mason administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the pitch.
The fact Darling retired hurt on 0 – it was the fifth ball of Australia's innings – after being carried from the field on a stretcher, only to resume batting at the fall of the fifth wicket the next day only highlights the 'grit your teeth and get on with it' mentality of that time.
But as the dashing country kid – whose upbringing on concrete pitches around Waikerie in South Australia's Riverland honed the hooks, cuts and pulls around which his game was built – would later learn, all those bumps, bruises and breaks would come at a compounding cost.
"I was targeted, no doubt about it," Darling told cricket.com.au recently.
"And if I was fast bowler, I would probably also have targeted somebody who was injury prone.
"But the head injuries I got over the years have turned into a condition known as post-traumatic epilepsy.
"It comes when you get a lot of concussions, a lot of footballers get it now, and I had a lot of head injuries playing cricket as well as football and that's developed into this epilepsy that I control with medication.
"It's not that I have seizures, it's more like little periods when everything would get fuzzy – what I would call 'turns' – but when I look back, I understand the link to getting hit a few times because of the way I played.
"I was always going to have a go at bouncers, that was just my nature.
"If it was too high, you could just let it go but these blokes I was playing against were good enough to always put it around your throat and chest, and nine times out of ten I'd have a crack at it."
Darling admits he gets "a bit emotional" as he casts back to the fast-bowling arms race era in which he plied his dangerous trade, to the unlikely path he had traversed to get there, and the sickening brutality that effectively cut it short.
He's had good reason to revisit that journey over recent years, recording his favourite memories and anecdotes into a recently released book 'From Bush to Buckingham Palace' (Ryan Publishing) which, in itself, represents no small achievement given he was only diagnosed with dyslexia later in adult life.
The difficulty Darling found with academia at primary school in Ramco (population 150), then nearby Waikerie High, fuelled his ambition for a career in sport, with cricket almost pre-ordained given his great uncle Joe Darling captained Australia in 21 Tests from 1899 to 1905.
But upon graduating to club cricket ranks in Adelaide as a teenager, he quickly learned his bucolic upbringing hadn't quite prepared him for the not-quite big time.
"When I first came and played in Adelaide in district cricket, and even my first Shield game (in 1975), I didn't have anything even like a thigh pad," he recalled.
"In the country where I started off, all I used was a couple of folded up hankies in my pants pocket which acted as a thigh pad.
"There was no helmets, and even pads were quite rudimentary where I started.
"Nobody had their own equipment apart from maybe a bat, and country clubs would have a team kit where the pads were often ripped or had busted buckles.
"And as far as protectors went … you had to do it, but you were quite reluctant to share a box."
The need for slightly improved personal protective devices became more urgent when, after a dozen games as a middle-order batter in Ian Chappell's SA team, Darling was thrust into the untried role as opener on the fast and furious WACA pitch of the late 1970s.
As he remembers, the promotion came because Chappell and then SA manager Les Favell – himself, a former cavalier opening bat – decided the acute bouts of nervousness Darling habitually suffered prior to heading for the middle would be best mitigated if he got out there quickly.
In his first game against the new ball, Darling posted a second innings century (run out – another recurring theme of his batting) and his card was thus marked.
"I remember Les Favell coming to me and, in his usual gruff manner, saying 'righto lad, put the pads on … you're batting' and that was my initiation into opening the batting," Darling said.
"I didn't think I was a natural opener.
"I was too impatient, and not like a Geoff Boycott or a Sunil Gavaskar – the best two opening batsmen I saw – who were so patient.
"People might have thought they were slow and boring, but by the end of the day they're 140 not out.
"I wish I could have moulded myself on them, but you are what you are.
"So I became an opener, but I never really liked it."
The unlikely opener then found himself amid uncharted circumstance, as the World Series Cricket schism saw Australia's Test team torn asunder and – after three unsuccessful first-wicket combinations were used in four Tests against India – the selectors opted for an untried pairing.
After just four first-class innings as an opening batter, 21-year-old Rick Darling was informed of his elevation to Test cricket in a manner as curious as events themselves.
Having finished a Sheffield Shield game against WA at Adelaide Oval in early January 1978, Darling returned to the family property on the River Murray and was water-skiing one afternoon when he noticed his father shouting and waving at him from the bank.
"He was yelling out 'get over here, get over here', so I swam across and he said 'get in the car, we have to go to Adelaide because you're playing in a Test and it starts in two days," Darling recalled.
"There wasn't any time to prepare as such, not the way they do now.
"It was just getting in the car, driving to town, having a net and then playing.
"My opening partner was Graeme Wood, and I didn’t know Woody from a bar of soap until virtually the time we walked out on the ground together to open the batting."
The haphazard build-up didn't hamper his productivity, scoring 65 and 56 as Australia secured a famous 3-2 series win over India and within weeks Darling boarded his first international flight as part of the 'second-string' touring team sent to face the full fury of a West Indies team complete with WSC players.
By his own admission, that was where Darling "got sorted out" and the troubles against short-pitched bowling that would haunt his future playing days and beyond were born.
Having missed through illness the first Test in Trinidad where teammate Peter Toohey was hit between the eyes by an Andy Roberts bouncer, he scored just 43 runs from his next six innings before being axed for the final Test at Jamaica, by which time the WSC West Indians had also been sidelined by their own board.
Helmets were still glaringly absent from international cricket despite the menace perpetrated by those malevolent quicks, but concessions to injury were being made and for the first time Darling fitted himself with the newest protective gimmick – an inside rear-leg thigh pad.
"Everyone looks back at that time and says it was a golden era for the West Indies, but not so much for other teams," Darling said.
"I never thought 'I'm out of my depth here', and I never really thought about getting injured.
"All I wanted to do was try and stay in and build a score, but I was too impatient.
"I would try and hit a bouncer that probably wasn't quite there, and those fast bowlers would hone in on that and kept bowling short.
"As well as being no helmet, there was no chest protectors or arm guards, and I'd just progressed from a couple of hankies to a proper thigh pad.
"It really sharpens your senses, because instead of taking it on the body you try to use the bat a bit more.
"I suppose you do fear for your safety, but you do your best to try and cover it up."
Darling also concedes there were occasions when he didn't help his own cause.
In the weeks prior to that fateful Ashes afternoon at Adelaide Oval, he had chased a ball to the boundary in a Shield game at the same ground and badly gashed his hand on one of its wooden fence pickets.
When Australia embarked on a gruelling six-Test tour to India later that year, he was struck in the face while fielding in a tour match and had seven stitches inserted in a cut above his left eye before suffering a shoulder sprain diving to save a ball during the third Test at Kanpur.
The absence of specialist medical help during that draining campaign, where Darling became so unwell with stomach problems he was reduced to a ghost of his former physical shape, also proved an eye opener for a young country boy on his first visit to the subcontinent.
"The only support staff we had was a manager and a masseuse – we didn't even carry a first-aid kit," he said.
"I remember Woody and I were messing around in the rooms one night and he hit his head, blood poured from a cut on his scalp and all the masseuse had was some after shave to put on the wound as a disinfectant.
"That's how rudimentary it was."
But it was his preparedness to continue taking on the short ball that brought him greatest pain, and ultimately foreshortened his playing career as well as impacting his post-cricket life.
The West Indies might have weaponised fast bowling after their humiliation at the hands of Ian Chappell's Test team in 1975-76, but each Australian state also boasted a bowler who was capable of – and occasionally prided himself on – maiming opponents.
From the raw speed of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, to Len Pascoe's pointed and repeated threats to "kill" rival batters, and the not-altogether-unwarranted epithets bestowed on the likes of Ian 'Mad Dog' Callen and 'Rocket' Rod McCurdy, top-level cricket was a wild west frontier by the late 1970s.
While the Willis blow might seem an obvious low point, Darling denies it brought him any residual physical or psychological damage and maintains it was significantly more traumatic for those who witnessed it because he felt no pain, and carried no memory due to his loss of consciousness.
The same did not apply to the repeated blows he copped in domestic cricket, as fast bowlers from rival states zeroed in on his fallibility against head-seeking missiles.
Thomson, his Test teammate on that West Indies where Australia's batters were bombarded, hit Darling flush on the temple when the right-hander tried to hook in a Shield game against Queensland at Adelaide Oval in January 1981.
But it was the return bout between those teams at the same venue two summers later when Darling copped his knockout blow, this time a bouncer from future Test quick John Maguire that smashed into the opener's face even though he had adopted an early version of the batting helmet by that stage.
The ball penetrated a gap in the protective headwear and slammed into his left cheek, causing lacerations to his face and bleeding within the eyeball which required him to spend almost a week in hospital lying stock still and flat on his back to avoid permanent damage.
He still suffers from problems with that eye, but it was the mental damage that accompanied the hit that carried the greatest sting.
"That finished me then and there," he said, even though he returned to first-class cricket three months later and played a further three years for South Australia, although he dropped out of the game for a stint in 1983 after then skipper David Hookes refused his request to bat further down the list.
"After that I didn't want to be there.
"I was quite shellshocked, and that sort of finished me up and my playing days were pretty much over by age 28.
"Fast bowlers were targeting me, and that's why I lost my confidence in the end.
"I kept playing the game because it was pretty much all I knew, and they kept on picking me for South Australia so I must have been doing something right.
"But for three years, I wasn't only a shadow of myself, I was a bad example for the players around me.
"My negativity certainly rubbed off on to some of the younger players.
"It's something I'm embarrassed about, but I take responsibility for everything that's happened to me.
"If I didn't get those injuries, I probably may have had a better record than I eventually finished up with.
"But it is what it is, and I've got no animosity towards anybody.
"I just played the game as I thought it should be played, and I'm not blaming anybody in the slightest."
While he dismisses any suggestion that players who were sent out to face sustained barrages of potentially lethal fast bowling were effectively being placed in harm's way, he does wonder what his cricket career and subsequent life might have looked like if afforded the workplace safety measures of today.
Darling is a strong supporter of the stringent measures to combat concussion in modern cricket, where even a glancing blow to a batter's helmet results in an immediate replacement of the protective device, and on-field cognitive tests measure a player's capacity to continue.
If they are found to be exhibiting any indication of impairment, they can be substituted out of the match so the team suffers no detriment.
It's one of the most stark indicators of the markedly changed times from 40 years ago – along with the absence of copious long-neck beer bottles and gratis cigarettes in the dressing rooms at the end of each day's play – and he's adamant it's a shift for the better.
"There was probably too many bouncers bowled back in that era," Darling said of his playing days, which he ended with a first-class average of 35.8 from 98 matches including a player-of-the-match award in Australia's 1979 Test win over Pakistan at Perth, which he rates his high watermark.
"It's probably not until the last 20 years or so they've put a cap on the number of bouncers per over, whereas back then the West Indies and guys like (England's) Bob Willis and Ian Botham, I'm sure I went through overs where every ball was banged in and bounced above chest height.
"I got most of my runs through hooking, pulling and cutting, and it was the only way you could score against bowling like that.
"It was a brutal era, I'm not sure anyone would disagree with that.
"But I suppose you can say one thing – it was better to endure that sort of treatment than not to be part of it at all."
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