A typical Kolkata monsoon afternoon in September 1980. Calcutta Police are playing Bombay Gymkhana in what was then (rather grandiosely) called the All-India and South-East Asia rugby tournament. A scrum on the far side of the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CC&FC) ground, near the cricket nets. Suddenly, there’s a commotion and a lot of scurrying around. The referee (typically, in those days, a player from one of the non-playing teams) halts play and the club’s resident medic, Vece Paes, runs on. It emerges that a Police player is injured. The cluster of fans on the near side starts barracking, with cries of “shamming" and “hit him again". Soon, though, it becomes clear that something serious has happened; there is much hand-waving and shouting. After 20-odd minutes the player is taken off on a stretcher and the game resumes.

A few days later there’s a small report in The Statesman telling us that Jayanandan Singh, a Calcutta Police player, had died in hospital from a broken neck sustained in that match.

I was in my early teens then and a frequent spectator at rugby matches at the CC&FC, including this one; what is written above is from my memory of that day, and the days that followed. The incident stayed with me through the years and with time I became curious—my curiosity piqued, no doubt, by the lack of available information. Who, for example, was Jayanandan Singh? That newspaper report, from what I recall, didn’t have a picture or any personal details. What exactly led to the accident? The information flow back then was non-existent compared to the Google era and a teenager asking questions on such a serious subject would typically be met with silence.

It took a tragedy many years later, and many thousands of miles away and in a different sport, for me to get some answers. The death of Phillip Hughes from a freak injury while batting at the Sydney Cricket Ground held many parallels to this almost forgotten incident in Kolkata. From the place of occurrence to the general area of the injury to the odds against such an injury happening, to the players’ deaths days later. I wanted to know more.

With the help of Nandu Chandavarkar, the elegant leader of the La Martiniere Old Boys (LMOB) team and a spectator that day, I pieced together the incident. It was a typically wet and slippery monsoon field on which the match was played. Singh wasn’t scheduled to play that day but did so because his team’s regular prop was unavailable. There was a scrum, in which Bombay Gymkhana had the heavier pack. In that scrum someone’s foot slipped, the scrum collapsed and the weight of the pack fell on Singh. There was the sound of a crack; it was the sound of Singh’s neck being fractured. When the players separated, they could see Singh in a kneeling position, head down. “He was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Chandavarkar. “A more experienced player would probably have coped with a collapsed scrum."

Dr Paes—an Olympic medal winner and still playing hockey back in 1980—concurred. “He was a new player and inexperienced in tackling," he said. “He didn’t know the technique of how to go head-first into an opponent." There were several errors—unintended, of course—that compounded Singh’s condition. “In those days sportsmen were not very well trained in how to deal with injured teammates. The first response to any injury was usually to make the player sit up, give him some water, get him going again. And that’s what they did here—they shook him to try and revive him. With a fractured vertebra that is the worst thing you can do." It’s worth pointing out that in 1956 the Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann played the last 15 minutes of the FA Cup final with what was diagnosed, three days later, as five dislocated vertebrae and one that had been cracked in two.

Singh died a couple of weeks later; he was newly married and his widow was expecting their child. His death was soon forgotten except by those in the tightly knit rugby community—and by those who were there. The incident didn’t deter children from taking up the sport; in fact rugby grew in Kolkata—and across India—in the 1980s. One of my classmates in school, Sheel Tankha, played for the LMOB in the late 1980s. I asked him whether this incident, and its implications, had ever affected him as a player. “Psychologically, no," he said. “But refereeing became much stricter after that, especially with regard to “high" (neck) tackles and other forms of dangerous play". I asked Chandavarkar the same question. “Obviously we were shocked, and we would probably have taken it harder had he died on the pitch. But we were confident that our rugby training was good enough; the techniques we were taught emphasized safety first."

There were many lessons learnt from the tragedy. One of the first responses, Chandavarkar said, was to change the safety practices on the field of play—no player would examine an injured player, it would be left to the attending medical expert. One of Singh’s teammates, I was told, was inspired enough to take a course in first-aid. Chandavarkar, currently part of the Indian Rugby Football Union, points to another interesting, if more recent, development. “We insist on all players getting insurance so that they are looked after."

I write this as the Indian Super League semi-finals are on, and I can see the first-aid teams with their neck braces and spinal board stretchers. “They weren’t around back then," Dr Paes said. “Even if they were they might not have saved that player’s life. But it would have given him a chance."

A sporting chance. That’s all a sportsman ever wants.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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