Bricks in the Back

I was fourteen when cricket wrecked my back.  I played for Pascoe Vale Central in Melbourne. One afternoon at training I was striving for extra pace and bowling off-side wides.

The assistant coach (I can’t remember his name) was a heavy left handed all-rounder who trained with the Victorian squad in the seventies.  He said I was moving my head in delivery stride and it was affecting my accuracy.

I’d never seen vision of myself bowling so I had no idea if my head moved.  I tried keeping it still but the coach kept mimicking me by moving his head wildly.

For some reason, instead of standing behind the stumps as I ran in to bowl, he stood a foot to the left.  While delivering the ball, the right side of my head cannoned into his shoulder.  The ball careered off the pitch.

‘See how much you move your head?’ he said.  ‘Keep it still.’

For the rest of the net I concentrated on keeping my head still.  I was also concentrating on the lower left side of my back.

Each ball was a new adventure in pain, the worst I’d ever felt.  It hurt for a few weeks but I kept playing.  By the time we lost the grand final, I was pain free.

The following season, pain forced me to change my action I’d modelled on Michael Holding to chest-on style like Malcolm Marshall.  It gave me a little more pace and I kept my head still but I was never satisfied with my remodelled action.

In 1987, at umpiring training I bounced the ball and my back bounced too.  It felt like two bricks had collided.

The injury lingered for months.  I couldn’t bend over.  I couldn’t get comfortable sitting or standing.  I couldn’t find a pain free position in bed.  Getting up was agony.

My father Bill was an executive at St Vincent’s Hospital.  He ignored the need for a doctor’s referral and the waiting list.  X-rays confirmed a stress fracture.

To coincide with my back injury, I was grounded for a term on account of a poor report card. At the end of the term my back was better.  Because I’d been grounded, my report card improved.

My mum – Patsy-  thought my back injury mightn’t have been caused by sport, given I’d had no access to girls for three months. I’d never had access to girls but I pretended she might’ve been right.

In the nineties I played senior footy and umpired without too many issues. Occasionally my back ached. Domestic chores like vacuuming, mowing lawns and changing the sheets caused was the main source of pain.

Aside from a few indoor games, I never played competitive cricket again.

It was 2007, twenty years after the stress fracture had healed, when a combination of events one weekend left me greeting Monday in agony.

The old problems were back.  They’ve been with me ever since.

There are times when rolling over in bed, tying laces, sitting or hanging out washing make those bricks in my back clash.  Sneezing can leave me doubled over with pain.   Coughing hurts.  On rare occasions, I couldn’t swallow food or drink without pain.  I couldn’t, sleep, walk, sit, laugh or talk without discomfort.

The agony peaked in 2009 after a Neil Young concert at the Boondall Entertainment Centre.  It took 25 minutes to walk home from Banyo train station, a trip that normally takes six or seven minutes.

A scan confirmed the stress fracture was back and the L5 disc had slipped forward a touch.

Months of physio eased the burden.  The physio said the tightness in my back was affecting my leg muscles, which was one of the reasons I kept tearing my calf muscles.

‘Everything is connected,’ she said.  ‘A stress fracture can tighten back muscles, which pulls on the hamstrings and the calf muscles.  When you have tightness like that, something’s got to give.’

The fracture took a year to heal.  By 2011 I was able to run a few half-marathons without tearing my calf muscles.  I contemplated a comeback to winter cricket.  The physio asked if I wanted to have my back fused.

I didn’t.

I’m careful with my back.  I don’t slouch.  I sit with a small pillow behind my back.  I lift with my legs.  But there are days when changing the sheets or bottling beer leave me hurting for a week.

There are days when I can chop trees down and load the trailer and empty it at the tip and mow lawns without any issues.  Then picking a zucchini from the vegetable patch will make my back feel like those two bricks are colliding.

During the build up to the first Test against India, Michael Clarke’s back and hamstring issues caused conniptions.  He insisted he was fit.  No one knows his back like he does.  And he’s only missed one Test because of it.

When he ducked a bouncer and wrecked his back on the first day, I shook my head, thinking his back would break his career.

When Clarke came out on day two and made a hundred, I was briefly overcome with sympathetic pride.  He was clearly hindered by the injury and did it anyway.  I rate it as one of his finest centuries.

During India’s innings, Clarke fielded in the covers instead of the slips. On day four, as Warner hit his second hundred for the match, I was building a deck at shin height around my pool with a contractor called Pete.

After four hours I couldn’t move without pain. Pete asked if I could continue. I didn’t feel like retiring hurt because it had to be done. The pain was worse after lunch. I took the last anti-inflammatory.

Kristine kept asking about my back. I didn’t want to talk about it. I never want to talk about it. She offered massage. I agreed but rejected it later.

I was thinking about Clarke, hitting a hundred to set up the game. Batting hurt because he had to. No one was going to do it for him.

On day five, as Pete and I worked in high heat and humidity, Clarke tore his hamstring tendon off the bone, a bad injury requiring surgery. There were fears his career might be over.

I wondered if his back injury was causing issues with his hamstrings. As the physio said, everything is connected.

A few days later, as Clarke underwent surgery, the pool deck was nearing completion. My back was full of bricks. I kept working because I had to. When the Test series petered out, I was sanding and oiling and wondering if Clarke should do himself a favour and rule himself out of the World Cup.

Reports suggest Clarke and Cricket Australia are unhappy with each other. Injury is the issue. It’s fair enough. Clarke said he understands his back and its limitations. He said he wouldn’t play if he couldn’t.

In his last ODI he tore his hamstring. In his last Test a slight swerve wrecked his back. Then he tore his hamstring off the bone.

That’s not being able to play. That’s not understanding his injury. That’s doing it anyway. That’s a belligerent attitude.

I understand that belligerent attitude. I don’t trust my back and that can be motivating. But when my back hurts I’m not playing cricket for Australia. My back isn’t important for our country.

Clarke’s back is important for Australia. He should put belligerence aside, mend his relationship with Cricket Australia and rule himself out of the World Cup.

Australia won’t miss him. And that is the issue right now.

No one trusts Clarke’s back and hamstrings. He must be careful with his trust.



About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. I feel your pain Matt. I had a disc operation and some bone work at the L4 and L5 about 18 months ago. Things haven’t been the same since. Weekly massages to free up the groins, hamstrings, hips and calves. VIP status with my osteo and everyone, of course, recommending that “I should see this guy who’s a miracle worker…” blah, blah, blah.

  2. Callum O'Connor says

    Apparently Clarke’s injury is visible to the naked eye…

  3. The Avenging Eagle had a bad fall 20 years ago and shares your pain Matt. She sends her condolences.
    I have always been a Clarke supporter when it came to playing Tests, because his batting brilliance and stoicism, combined with tactical acumen, seemed to make it all worthwhile. He knew that his country needed him and that made it worth the risks.
    It seems to me that this World Cup is part of a grand farewell tour that he has had planned out in his mind some time ago. Now he needs his country to provide the stage and occasion for the farewell.
    I doubt that the gods will be forgiving as stoicism tips over into hubris.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Matt. I empathise with anyone who’s copped a back injury. Debilitating in many ways. I copped it in late 1995 (Bowling flat out without training enough). Has been a bugbear ever since and includes sciatica. Legs feel like they weigh a ton. Wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Clarke really does need to be patient and smart with this injury. Cheers

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