The alarming tale of the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba who collapsed on the field against Tottenham prompts two immediate thoughts. One, the memory of a cricketing colleague of mine who suffered a number of similar heart seizures and whose premature death was ultimately preventable. And two, the well-being of the England team currently on tour in the most oppressive conditions you can encounter in Test cricket.
Many readers will remember Wilf Slack, a fine, phlegmatic left-handed opening batsman for Middlesex who played a couple of Tests for England in the late 1980s. He was also part of Mike Gatting’s squad that regained the Ashes in 1986-87, though he didn’t actually play in that series.
Slack was a very calm batsman, and a fit one too, but he had a problem. Every so often he would have a sudden blackout, fall to the ground and struggle to breathe. He generally recovered after specialist treatment. It happened about half a dozen times, usually in practice.
He was invariably stretchered away for tests, given some time to convalesce and perhaps a week or two later given the all-clear to resume playing. Crucially, no proper diagnosis was ever achieved. One fateful day on tour in The Gambia, Slack, walking out to bat, suddenly fainted again. This time he never regained consciousness. He died aged 34, in what should have been the prime of his life.
The post-mortem revealed he had died of heart failure because of a suspect artery. His tragic bad luck was that no one had previously identified that. Heart screening was in its infancy in the 1980s and during his previous fainting fits nobody with sufficient medical knowledge could get to him quickly enough to identify the problem. If someone had been able to detect his fading pulse, a diagnosis would have ensued, a pacemaker fitted and he would still be alive today to tell the tale.
Fast forward to today and it is reassuring to report that the medical checks and heart screening of England cricketers is extremely rigorous (and mostly performed before they even get to the top level). This is even more important when playing in a place like Sri Lanka.
Nowhere else in the Test cricket world do you get such a debilitating combination of heat (a constant 33 degrees centigrade) and humidity (90 per cent plus). It is oppressive in the extreme (and I know, having once spent four months playing there) – a bit like playing cricket in a sauna. In fact, Jack Russell once took this description so literally he practised his wicketkeeping in one before a tour of the island.
No other Test-playing country puts your body under such severe and unrelenting stress – your legs feel like jelly and you can hardly breathe. It is so hot you want a drink every two minutes, throwing as much of it over you as in you.
As you would expect, England have prepared carefully, in specially heated training environments to monitor fluid loss and absorption and general hardiness. An army of highly qualified people are close by should there be any incidents (as, it should be said, there were to attend to Muamba in his hour of need).
And, when anyone feels the urge to criticise the number of England’s support staff, they should remember that. Because you can’t put too high a premium on anyone’s life.