The day I nearly killed someone: a novelist’s story

Wellington novelist Brannavan Gnanalingam on the violence of teenage life in New Zealand.

When I was 15 I nearly killed somebody. It was a matter of millimetres. Even then, his skull was fractured and he had to be urgently airlifted to hospital in a coma.

I’m a big fan of sport, but if I had to choose one sport to watch for the rest of my life, it would be cricket. One of the great things about sport is its narrative potential, and test cricket in particular has the ebbs and flow of a novel. Okay, a long Russian novel. Unfortunately, my passion for cricket far outweighed my ability. When I was 15, I switched from being a spinner to being a “pace” bowler. My coach used to say I would run in faster than I bowled.

In reality, I was a whippy left-armer, who could take advantage of angles, rather than pace. However, because most bowlers are right-handed, left-armers have the ability to take batsmen by surprise because the ball comes at a different angle than they’re used to.


We were at cricket practice. I was on the cusp of being in the First XI, and was trying hard to impress. The batsman facing me (I’ll call him B for batsman) was also on the cusp of the First XI. I bowled a bouncer. And a second bouncer. And B ducked, and the ball went straight into him. It hit him just above the left ear. It sounded like a bag of concrete being dropped. He fell down, clutching his head. He was screaming. I can still hear the scream.

The rest of the team laughed at him.

He got up, groggily. We asked if he was ok, and he nodded. He decided to take a break and wandered back to the school for an ice pack. We continued on with practice, and about an hour later, wandered back to school.

B had been sitting in reception, chatting to the science teacher. The science teacher picked up that B was starting to slur his words. He called an ambulance immediately. I suspect the teacher probably helped save B’s life.

When we arrived back at the school, the first of three police cars came. Then two ambulances. And then a helicopter. It would have been rush hour traffic, so the helicopter was seen as the most efficient way to get B to hospital. No-one talked to me while we waited for him to be taken away, not any teacher, not any police officer, nobody. It was reported in the Dominion-Post the following day – yet again, no-one talked to me.

In the immediate aftermath, people tried to explain it away – it’s cricket, it was one of those things.

To most people, I imagine I would have been one of the least likely people to be charged with any violent offence. I was studious and very dedicated to schooling. I never skipped a day of school or failed to study or did anything really all that wrong. In Year 13, I won the Christian Values Award, despite not being Christian. Yet the thing is, you can’t really bowl a bouncer by mistake. You can deliver a full toss at the head by mistake (or, if you’re Brett Lee, repeatedly), but a bouncer, no.

I deliberately bowled the bouncer. If you land the ball on its cross-seam, the ball can rear up. It’s seen as a skill for fast bowlers, as it’s meant to test the batsmen. Well, you’d use the word “test” as a euphemism – in actual fact, it is intended to intimidate. Put doubt in their mind and push them onto their back foot so they’d give themselves the illusion of more time to hide from the ball. There are the codes to follow if you get hit – don’t rub it, so the bowler doesn’t think you’re hurt. If you’re especially game, you’d hook the ball, one of the most thrilling shots in cricket.

In the immediate aftermath, people tried to explain it away – it’s cricket, it was one of those things. Alternatively, it was B’s fault for not wearing a helmet. I felt like I’d got off scot-free.

After he said he was okay, I had assumed that was it. In the aftermath, I didn’t go visit him in hospital. I didn’t call him when he was convalescing at home to check in on him (that was left to my mother to check in with B’s mother). I never properly apologised to him when he came back to school. He had come back a few weeks later, ostensibly fine.

B continued to play cricket, and crafted a better First XI record than I did. I dropped bowling “pace” and went back to being a spinner and a batsman. I started wearing a helmet. I think, to this very day, I have the lowest batting average of a specialist batsman for the First XI. My school’s cricket team is now really good, so I’ll probably hold onto that record. I quit playing cricket at 18, my heart no longer in it.

I can offer no excuse for my non-response. I’m interested in the way I’d spun narratives to assuage my guilt. How my response to a violent act that I’d committed, was to scramble for ways to justify it. I told myself that he was fine, so why did I have to dwell on it. I believed what people told me, about his lack of helmet or the fact it was just cricket. He didn’t matter – it became all about me. This article, is still, all about me.

My lack of proper apology and checking up on him could arguably be tied to some sort of performative Kiwi maleness, and some misplaced emphasis on stoicism. Or it could be because I didn’t know how to express my opinions or emotions properly. I grasped at all of these straws, as if they gave me absolution. But in reality – and more simply – I was just an arsehole.

I thought about how we recount violence, especially the particularly awful violence from our past. For the most part, we don’t acknowledge it. We bury it, occasionally treating it as a cautionary tale. If we actually acknowledge it, it’s treated as a single extraordinary moment, rather than something that’s part of a wider narrative. The violence doesn’t have a three-act structure, or, long-term consequences. Yet, in reality, it ripples on and on, without end.

Last year, I hit my head at a playground, while playing with my daughter. Two days later, I was diagnosed with delayed concussion. I was off full-time work for a month, it took four months for the headaches to stop, and my sleep remains a mess, nearly a year on. I came to the realisation that people who haven’t had a head injury, have no idea what it’s like. I had no idea what it was like for B – but now, I have some sense. It wouldn’t have been easy. But it shouldn’t have required me to centre myself in his pain, in order to understand it.

B has done well since he left school – he’s a doctor, and he is a keen and very fast ultra-marathon runner. I guess I take comfort in that.

In 2014, an Australian test cricketer, Phillip Hughes, died after being hit by a bouncer in a first-class game. It was a further shocking reminder of the violence a cricket ball can inflict. The Australian captain, Michael “get ready for a broken fucking arm” Clarke gave a heartfelt eulogy to his mate, about how he was taken too soon.

In the immediate aftermath, I flicked B a message. I hadn’t talked to him since we left school, over a decade previously. I said I was sorry. I genuinely am. One of the cruel things about being a victim though is that it is on you to grant absolution to someone who had caused you harm. I imagine there would have been pressure on him to respond. He was very gracious about it though – more gracious than I felt I deserved. He had no obligation to even reply. He’s been gracious in relation to this article. The event had rippled on for him too, with effects that lingered into university.

It highlighted for me that our acts – even if they’re unthinking or unintentional – can have such severe consequences. That even if you don’t intend violence, they are indeed violent. Making up for it though, is much harder and there are no easy solutions, and it can’t be on the victim to make it easier for the perpetrator. But at the very minimum, there’ll need to be an acknowledgement of the consequences. None of this is easy. However, the easiest – and laziest - thing would be to pretend it never happened in the first place.

Brannavan Gnanalingam's latest novel Sprigs (Lawrence & Gibson, $30), which looks at whether we are able to atone for mistakes we make as teenagers, is reviewed in ReadingRoom tomorrow by Alec Redvers-Hill.

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