I was a little early for my weekly game of tennis (indoors) so I settled myself down on one of those plastic chairs to watch the protagonists at play as their game drew to a close beforewe took up their court. That’s odd, I thought, what are those dogs doing here? Dogs? In a tennis club? In the indoor courts? Unheard of. It took a few seconds for the penny to drop. The game taking place in front of me looked like no other that I had ever seen. The ball was the size of a small football, it made a sort of jangling noise, and the rules evidently allowed it to bounce twice before it became dead. Of course. This was tennis for the blind. I remained transfixed, my admiration two-fold. One, what tenacity to overcome such a disability to continue playing, obviously in reduced circumstances, a game they loved, notwithstanding the almost insurmountable obstacles put in their path. And two, how would I, who loves sport, cope if I was similarly affected? Not well would be my guess. To lose the sight of one eye is bad enough, but to lose both…..
The Nawab of Pataudi (known to his team-mates as ‘Tiger’) was a cricketing prodigy as an undergraduate at Oxford University. When he came down from Oxford, he played for Sussex, was selected to represent India, and captained them in 40 Tests. Remarkably, for most of his career he played with only one eye. He suffered a horrific car accident in 1961 when he and a fellow team-mate were racing each other down from Oxford to Hove to play against Sussex. The surgeon was able to save one eye but not the other. Undaunted, Pataudi taught himself to bat with one eye, his cap pulled down over the sightless eye. His Test record is sound. Many believed that his Test record would have been outstanding had both eyes been on the ball.
Another Test cricketer who lost the sight of one eye is probably better remembered by England supporters of a certain age than the Nawab of Pataudi. Colin Milburn was a Geordie with a Falstaffian figure (his nickname was ‘Ollie’, after Oliver Hardy, which gives you a fair indication of his girth), an infectious sense of fun and love for cricket. He played in 9 Test matches, including an unforgettable 126 not out at Lord’s against the formidable West Indies side of 1966. Then tragedy struck. He was involved in a motor accident returning home after a county game against Leicestershire, in which he lost the sight of one eye. Gamely, he attempted several comebacks but to no avail and he was forced eventually to retire. He died of a heart attack at the young age of 48, never having fully reconciled himself to life without cricket.
Gordon Banks, a member of England’s World Cup winning side of 1966, renowned as one of the greatest goalkeepers the world has ever seen, also suffered catastrophic eye injury in a car crash. He was involved in a head-on collision in which his windscreen was shattered, and shards of glass cut his face to pieces, irreparably damaging his right eye. He was never the same player again and retired the following season.
So, it goes without saying that eyesight, one of the most magical of the five senses, is crucial to a sportsman. But why should sportsmen and women decry their infirmity more than anybody else? History is littered with men and women of huge artistic and administrative talent who were blind or went blind: artists, musicians, writers, scientists et al. Homer, the Ancient Greek poet, attributed as the author of the great works the Iliad and the Odyssey, was blind. Galileo, the astronomer, physicist and engineer, went blind when he was 68, with important work still to do. Horatio Nelson famously put his telescope to his blind eye, in order to avoid seeing a command from his admiral, which he thought was ill-advised. Fortunately, he won the battle (of Copenhagen), or he would have been court-martialled. Louis Braille, the French educator, went totally blind as a child and invented the method of ‘braille’, still used today for visually impaired people to read texts. Claude Monet, the French impressionist painter, suffered increasingly from blurred vision because of cataracts. Some art historians have argued that his blurred vision contributed to his impressionistic style. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were both blind but still produced and sang music of great significance.
The most intriguing example of blindness robbing someone of the raison d’etre of his life is John Milton, the author, inter alia, of the epic poem Paradise Lost. In addition to his poetry, he served as Oliver Cromwell’s secretary and was fiercely strident about his republican principles, which made him highly unpopular when Charles II was reinstated as monarch after the Restoration. Milton’s sight had been steadily deteriorating until he went fully blind at the age of 44, his life’s work far from finished. His blindness was a cause of great frustration to him which prompted him to question hisfaith in God. Why would God, when his faithful servant is devoting his whole life to His service, rob him of the very means – his writing – to spread the word? It’s all there in his poem On His Blindness:
“Does God exact day labour, light denied?”
In the end, Milton reconciles himself to his fate and thereafter employed an amanuensis to copy down his verse.
“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
If Milton is my favourite blind poet, Beethoven is my most favoured deaf composer. That is not strictly true; in point of fact Beethoven is my favourite composer full stop, alive or dead, deaf, hard of hearing or with ears fully functioning. But it still seems extraordinary that a man could compose such music of majestic power and serene beauty without being able to hear a single note written on his manuscript. “For the last three years, my hearing has grown steadily weaker,” he wrote, aged 30, to a friend. By the time he had written his first symphony, he had begun to hear a strange ringing and buzzing in his ears, and by the age of 44, he was totally deaf (he was 56 when he died), much major work still ahead of him. When it was time to unveil his ninth and final symphony (the Choral), he insisted on conducting it himself. This was of course impossible, but he was not to be gainsaid, so the orchestra followed their usual conductor, who was hiding from Beethoven in the wings. At the conclusion, the orchestra and choir had brought the magnum opus to a rousing finalebut Beethoven was still busily conducting from his rostrum. Gently, the lead violinist touched his arm and gestured behind him to the wildly cheering audience. How anybody could compose any piece of music without being able to hear a note, let alone the hundred different notes of an orchestra, is beyond the ken of us mere mortals.
There are fewer famous people who have been known to be deaf, I guess because it is still possible to write, to draw, to fix, to build, to invent without the benefit of hearing (though doubtless a lonely experience). A friend of ours had the charger to her hearing aids stolen and it took a week to secure a replacement. She said that week being cut off from any sort of human intercourse was a very miserable time indeed.
You can still play sport if you are deaf; after all, you can see the ball. Up to a point, I would agree. But not entirely. I played in a match many moons ago for the MCC against Leamington Cricket Club. Their opener was a prolific batsman, with an excellent technique, an inexhaustible hunger for runs, who would undoubtedly have made a name for himself in the professional game. Why had he not tried his hand at county cricket? But he was profoundly deaf, and the following incident demonstrates the problem. His partner had called him for a run. He had seen the clear gesture and set off for the far end. At the last second, his partner changed his mind and shouted, “No!” Oblivious to the call, he continued running and the two of them found themselves at the same end, each eyeing the other accusingly. The deaf batsman was run out by the length of the pitch. Except he wasn’t. We allowed him to return safely to his crease, none of us of a mind to dismiss him in such an unfortunate manner. In the professional game, however, there is no place for such quixotic gestures.
Thinking about it more deeply, I think that the ears play more of a part in elite sport than I first imagined. Take cricket, my game. The wicket-keeper and slips have to hear the feathered edge to appeal for a catch. And the umpire has to hear it to give it out. In the covers (my domain), if the ball was timed sweetly, you expected it to come at you swiftly; if there was a clunk, you would instinctively move forward to stop any possibility of a short run. And everybody in the ground can recognise that tell-tale sound of splintered wood when a bat has broken. Not to ignore the many shouts of instruction and encouragement from your team-mates – ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘wait’, ‘yours’, ‘bowler’s end’, ‘save two’ – even if you would prefer not to hear the oaths of disgust at one of your mistakes.
Touch. Now, here’s an interesting one. We speak of a player – in any sport – having a delicate touch. We speak of a player ‘out of touch’ when he has lost form. The pressure, or lack of, that one exerts on the ball with bat, racket, golf club or cue to generate pace or spin is pivotal and I would imagine that touch is equally important in riding a horse or driving a racing car. I believe also that touch is central to the laying on of hands to produce miracles but to be truthful, I’ve never seen itmyself, nor believed it. Yet touch is the basis of all that we do:
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.’ (Margaret Atwood)
Taste and smell are more difficult to pin down as being necessary for success in any given walk of like, except probably chefs and sommeliers. My only experience of smell having a beneficial effect on my cricket career was the aroma as you climbed the stairs at Lord’s making your way to the dining room to tuck into one of their famed lunches. As for taste….well, we all know what success tastes like but none of us wants to experience the bitter taste of defeat.
I leave the last word to the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius:
“These – the five senses – we trust, first, last, and always.”