On a personal note, I was struck by polio at the age of five, but through an international cricket career lasting over a decade and a half, that never really worried me.
There were all kinds of theories in my playing days. That I was a contortionist who could rotate his wrist 360 degrees. That my fingers gripped the ball differently thanks to an attack of polio, and therefore confused batsmen. I was usually amused, but occasionally irritated. The truth was more mundane and more painful.
When I came down with a fever in 1951 or so, I could not offer a handshake since I could not raise my right arm. I think I was too young to be particularly worried, but my parents rushed me to the local hospital. I tried to shake the doctor’s hand as I had been taught to, but just could not do it. The doctor looked worried. So did my parents. They went into a huddle. I left the hospital with my right arm in plaster. Nobody told me what was wrong.
I had been struck by polio, and my right arm lacked all strength. When the plaster was removed, the right arm was significantly thinner than the left. But crucially, the disease had been arrested. Thereafter the arm was massaged by cod liver oil. I think I drank some of it too, although I am not very sure now. School children can be cruel – but nobody noticed my problem when I started going to school.
For the first two years, I could do nothing with my right arm. Gradually I reconciled myself to the idea that my right arm would never be the same again, nor would it grow into its normal strength. Even six years later, when I was 11 or so, I struggled to raise my right arm. But still I was taking lot of interest in cricket (I was playing Shuttle and Table Tennis also with left hand) and played for school, college, and my club rarely and I was also enjoying my tennis ball cricket in the backyard, streets and in small grounds At 18, I played my first inter-club match. That was in July of 1963. I hadn’t yet begun dreaming of playing in the Ranji Trophy, our national championship. Yet within six months, I was playing for India! I made my debut against Mike Smith’s England in January 1964. My captain was the great Nawab of Pataudi, and he indicated to me very early that he saw me as India’s main strike bowler, my business to take wickets!
It was incredible! India were led by a player with one good eye and depended on wickets on a bowler with one good arm. I bowled faster than your average leg spinner, and bowled a higher proportion of googlies and top spinners than most. From the outfield I threw in left handed. My right arm was for bowling, and I was happy to finish with 242 wickets from 58 Tests. More importantly, I had a role to play in India’s first wins in England (1971) and Australia (1977-78).
As I developed as a bowler, it was suggested that perhaps the attack of polio had been a blessing, allowing me to bowl ‘freakishly’. This is not true. It only meant I had to work harder to make up for the weakened right arm. Polio can never be a blessing. It is incurable. But it can be prevented. I was one of the lucky ones, given a glimpse of the horror and then withdrawn quickly from the edge. The disease is on the verge of being eradicated, and we must throw all our muscle behind that final push to ensure that it is gone forever.
It is my privilege to be here in Australia to celebrate India's milestone achievement - 12 months without a single case of polio. I know first-hand the impact of polio and I am encouraged to see, in my lifetime, India make significant inroads in the fight to end this paralysing disease.
Please join me in getting behind the heroes who are helping stop the spread of this paralysing disease, by uploading a message of support for India’s polio eradication team at http://www.theendofpolio.com/home/phototool-365no/
- Spin bowling legend, 1972 Wisden Cricketer of the Year and polio survivor, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar.