Virendra Naik passes away: Cardiac-arrest related deaths in cricket aren’t as rare as we think

When Phillip Hughes passed away on November 27th 2014 as a result of injuries suffered from a Sean Abbott bouncer bowled during a Sheffield Shield game, the world was shocked. Cricketers aren’t supposed to die, especially not cricketers in the prime of their lives. And, we were assured, this is a rare and unfortunate accident - a one-in-a-million chance. Dr. Peter Brukner, the surgeon who operated on Phillip Hughes said of the incident and its impact: "Maybe cricket lost its innocence," he says. "I suppose we're better able to cope with [Aussie Rules] footballers dying in collisions and things like that, but cricketers, they're not supposed to die."

Cricketers are not supposed to die. And for the most part, they don’t. Records of cricket-related deaths remain scarce, but given the number of matches played across the world - formal and informal - the number of deaths is low.

But it doesn’t seem to be as rare as we’re told.

Yesterday, 41-year-old Virendra Naik was playing in an A-3 Division game for his team Marredpally Sporting Club. He made 66 before being adjudged out. He was visibly upset by the decision and returned to the pavilion bemoaning the fact that he didn’t reach his century. A short while later, he collapsed - he had a cardiac arrest. Unlike many others, he had a record of heart problems, and was on medication for the same. His death, while tragic and shocking, was at least somewhat understandable. A man with known heart problems had spent hours running in the sun, before an umpiring decision raised his heart-rate even further.

Also Read: Hyderabad cricketer Virendra Naik dies during match

Given that this local incident happened so recently, we decided to see if any other cardiac arrests were reported in Indian cricket recently. The other incidents found from the recent past are less understandable than yesterday’s tragedy. First, there’s the former Bengal U-19 cricketer Ankit Keshri, who collided with his teammate while trying to take a catch - the other player’s knee hit Ankit in the neck and head, and knocked him unconscious. He responded to initial treatments at a hospital, and was declared stable after three days. That same night, however, the promising cricketer suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away. Scans later showed that there had been no hemorrhaging to cause the heart attack. A shocking incident, and an even more tragic death.

On January 28th, 2018, another Hyderabad player suffered from a cardiac arrest - this time while on the pitch. While playing in the Bangaru Telangana MGR Cricket Tournament, 23-year-old Loyd Anthony was running in to bowl the fourth delivery of his first over in the match. His brother was in the crowd, filming Anthony’s bowling on his phone. The match was being played late at night under floodlights. While coming up to his delivery stride under the bright lights, Anthony fell over and didn’t move. For a few minutes, no one seemed to know what had happened to him. They called out to him, and then they tried to wake him up, but he was unresponsive. At 12:15 he was placed in an auto and rushed to a nearby hospital. At 1, he was pronounced dead. No prior health conditions, and no plausible cause for the arrest.

Two other deaths took place in December 2018. One took place on Christmas Day, where Vaibhav Kesarkar of Bhandup was playing in a local tennis-ball tournament. He had stepped out to bat, with no complaints, and he was scoring well. And then, it all fell apart. He stopped and doubled over, complaining of a pain in his chest. He was taken to a hospital and passed away while being treated. He was 24, with no known history of heart problems. No on-field injuries, no conditions, no delay in getting treatment. He was in the prime of life, and then, suddenly, was not.

The other, on December 8th is tragic in that unlike the other cases listed here, the victim in this case was not treated in a timely manner. In fact, nobody seemed to realize the severity of his condition at all. Ankit Hanotiya was a 35-year-old man playing for Diesel Shield XI, Itarsi in an inter-railway tournament.

Once the match was completed, Hanotiya was sitting with his teammates in the dugout. While there, he complained of acute chest pains, but none of his teammates thought anything was amiss. His manager certainly didn’t think he was in serious danger, as he decided to take Hanotiya to the hospital on the back of his cycle, instead of taking a train from the platform right next to the field.

Upon arrival at the hospital, Hanotiya was immediately taken to the emergency room, the doctors having recognized his symptoms, but it was too late. He passed away during the treatment. His team and friends blamed the officials at the ground, for their lax response to his complaints. The most tragic part of this case is that it was entirely avoidable, if only someone had known what Ankit Hanotiya was suffering from.

In addition to this is the in-depth study that Dr. Peter Brukner conducted following Hughes’s death, where he looked into all the cricket-related deaths he could find in Australia over the game’s 152-year history in the country. 174 people had died there, of numerous causes, and his study’s conclusion led to the implementation of neck stem guards on the back of helmets, to protect that portion of the head from impacts.

What was stressed then, and what I think - given all these recent cases in India - is that though doctors can claim that every high-profile case is a freak accident, a one-in-a-million incident, they simply aren’t. And cricket, especially in the subcontinent with its searing temperatures, needs to learn from this sudden influx of cardiac arrest cases and try to adapt in order to ensure that no more young players can fall in their primes.