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Australia v India

Will Pucovski makes his grand entrance as Australia holds its breath

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Will Pucovski has a history of concussion injuries in his short career so far, but that doesn’t mean we should treat him any differently, writes Ben Gardner.

There has perhaps never been a Test debut awaited quite like Will Pucovksi’s.

This is not because he’s unusually gifted, though he is that too. But despite the overeager Ponting comparisons and the consecutive double hundreds, you only have to go back one Test match to find Shubman Gill and a more straightforwardly exciting entrance.

Instead, the buzz around Pucovski is as much that of trepidation as anticipation, with the mountains of runs and the age-group accolades intermingling with the succession of concussions that have marked the 22-year-old’s professional career so far. The ninth, sustained in an A game which preceded this series, kept him out of the first two Tests. He has recovered enough to be selected, but still questions remain.

The concerns are less about his technique playing the bouncer – blows have also come at short leg and, bizarrely, when struck by a throw from a fielder as he dove to make his ground – though you imagine teams will be keen to test him on the short ball. Pucovski’s travails have arrived just as cricket is grappling with how it handles head injuries, with concussion subs only introduced 18 months ago, and still a cause for controversy when called upon.

The associated dangers with multiple concussions have been discussed at length while still being explored. What is known is that they can be linked to mental health issues – something Pucovski has been open about struggling with, withdrawing from Test contention in late 2019 – and can lead to neurological impairments later in life, with a string of tragic recent testimonies from former rugby union players showing how this is an area of concern that goes far beyond whether a player will have to miss a game or a series. Already, the speculation surrounding how long Pucovski can carry on for has begun.

“Nine concussions by the age of 22 has got to be a concern,” Peter Brukner, professor of sports medicine at Latrobe University and former Australia team doctor, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“You’re always concerned when people have multiple concussions and seemingly he’s one of these guys that it doesn’t need much to set him off with a concussion. Some people you’ve got to really have a pretty significant whack to get a concussion but basically it seems every time he hits his head or is hit on the head he develops these concussion symptoms, which happens in some people.

“The concern is that with each concussion maybe less force is required. It’s a little bit easier, if you like, to develop a concussion. That’s one concern and the other is the great unknown: is there any accumulated damage from recurrent concussions [in cricket]? The science is not clear on that really. If you were a park cricketer, you’d say ‘retire mate’. But it’s his livelihood and his career. It’s a tough one.”

Pucovski has consulted with an independent neurologist and been satisfied with the outcome of their discussions. But for a while, and possibly throughout his career, the head injuries will be one of the first things mentioned whenever Pucovski’s name comes up. The feeling remains that a couple more blows and the debate will become more urgent, take on a tone not of when Pucovski can next play for Australia, but whether he can ever play again.

Yet, as he made his steady first steps in the Baggy Green, that particular narrative strand begun to fade into the background. The first short ball to be bowled did spark an intake of breath, Pucovski playing a half-hearted pull in the first over and almost edging behind. But his first four came with a similar stroke, a top-edged pull flying over fine leg, before a more assured push down the ground took him into double figures. Slowly, everything else started to fall away and it became clear what he is, simply a promising Test cricketer showing himself to be worthy of the title.

The conversation turned to more technical matters, about his playing of the bumper, but also his method against spin, both of which saw him offer up chances while also crunching boundaries. The second chance seemed to free him up, and he cruised past fifty just before tea. Ironically, after all the talk about the blows to the head, it was one of the fullest balls he faced that undid him. He walked off knowing he was plumb, and perhaps thinking he’d been lucky to survive as long as he did, but also having played the major part in Australia’s largest stand of the series so far. For the first time, with a wicket not immediately forthcoming, India were left searching for answers. It was worth only 62 runs, containing two lives, and the list of raved-about Aussie debut cameos is long and treacherous. But this was a little gem, while it lasted.

And maybe that’s the lesson to take from Pucovski’s short career so far. It’s thankfully not yet a cautionary tale about cricket’s uneasy association with a delivery whose potency is derived from the threat of injury, and often aimed at the head. And it’s not really been long enough to serve as a true triumph over adversity. What it has done is brought into sharp relief the often soft-focus reality of professional cricket, life even; that an innings, career or anything at all can come to an end in an instant without reason. We like to view sport as the ultimate meritocracy, where the players with the most talent who work hardest reap the biggest rewards, ignoring those who show that to be folly, who are as gifted and diligent as any other but, for whatever reason, don’t achieve the success they deserve.

All we have with Pucovski is perhaps a slightly increased likelihood of one particular factor playing a decisive role, but really there are countless examples of out-of-the-blue incidents wreaking havoc on a player who didn’t deserve it. There’s Simon Jones injuring his ankle at Trent Bridge, just as the handsomeness and sharpness of his swing bowling had begun to match his cheekbones. There’s Syd Lawrence, for whom a decade of county toil was curtailed in an instant as his knee cap shattered like a pistol shot in his delivery stride at Wellington. Pucovski could misjudge another bouncer and be faced with a tough decision, or he could trip while tying his shoelaces and snap a ligament, or he could play 100 Test matches and score 25 Test hundreds.

The point is trite, perhaps, but it’s also true. With all things, we must enjoy and make the most of them while we can, because we don’t know how long we’ll have them.

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