/The long walk back to happiness

The long walk back to happiness

A year on from a career-saving operation to treat a fifth stress fracture of the back, Reece Topley is poised for a remarkable comeback.

A year on from a career-saving operation to treat a fifth stress fracture of the back, Reece Topley is poised for a remarkable comeback. ©Cricbuzz

Reece Topley is speaking with more raw honesty than he has in any of our previous conversations. It is early January, five months after career-defining surgery on his back. At this point, he doesn’t know whether things will work out. He has no county contract and hasn’t bowled a ball for six months. He doesn’t yet know whether he will ever get back onto a cricket field.

We have met multiple times since that operation, spoken on the phone, exchanged numerous messages. We would talk regularly over the next six months, too. But today, it is noticeable that Topley is displaying more vulnerability than he has before about the doubts and anxiety that a succession of stress fractures have caused him.

“I felt irrelevant to everything,” he says, sitting at a table in a Costa coffee shop in Colchester, finishing a bowl of porridge and some fruit. “After surgery I couldn’t do anything. I felt I was no good to anyone. So, I was like, do you know what, nobody is telling me I have to do this. You can be happy with cricket in your life, you can be happy without it. There’s no blueprint for being content.”

Topley’s thoughts of giving the game up were not new. The England fast bowler has considered it more times than he cares to remember after an appalling run of injuries which has included five absences with stress fractures of the back in the last six years. The latest occurred last summer, in July, and necessitated surgery. He’s only 25.

Stress fractures are like kryptonite for bowlers: debilitating and searingly painful. There is no guarantee they will be the same player after one. One stress fracture in a career is bad enough. Two, unfortunate. But five? Unheard of.

In numerous interviews and exchanges over the past 12 months, it has been clear that although the former Essex and Hampshire man has never really wanted to give cricket away, he has come to terms with doing so. Topley views himself as an optimistic person but after this run of bad luck, it is little wonder he has considered whether it is all worthwhile. A crucial period of his career has been taken away.

In 2015, he broke into England’s one-day and T20 teams, doing enough in his limited opportunities to prove he could mix it at the top level. Tall, left-arm and able to generate good pace, there were high hopes Topley would be a mainstay of England’s white-ball revolution. If things had been different, he might have been a World Cup winner. Instead, he’s on another comeback road.

Physically, the last six years have been filled with days living in constant pain. For most of that time, he would spend 40 minutes in the gym just to get his body ready to train. Daily hormone injections became the norm along with anesthetic jabs every month. If he had a beer, he would be in total agony the next day. Two or three days before a game, he would get anxiety, a nervousness about the pain he might have to endure. It didn’t always come. But very often, it did.

“It was almost like being under house arrest,” is how he described it, sitting in a London bar a few weeks after the 30th July operation, in our first face-to-face meeting. “I was trapped. Everyone else was playing cricket and enjoying it and I was simply trying to be in a place I was comfortable. Pain free.

“I thought that was incredibly unfair. I thought, ‘Is it worth it?’ It got to the point where I thought I would rather be sitting at a desk, doing a normal job rather than going through this every day.”

*****

“Mate, today is a bad day.”

Topley is glad he said those words to England Lions physio, Ben Langley, before taking the field against India ‘A’ at the Oval last July. It was the final of a tri-series and Topley was going into the game having just recorded his best-ever List A figures of 4 for 16, against West Indies ‘A’ a few days earlier. Yet Topley knew, as he has known many, many times over, this game, on this day, would be a battle.

The reason he’s glad of that interaction with Langley is because, in his own words, he bowled “a shower of shit”. Four overs for 33 runs. The pain was so bad every time he got to his delivery stride that any thought of where the ball would end up was irrelevant. This was not the kind of ache that all bowlers manage. This was excruciating.

If he hadn’t said anything, Topley believes people might have seen his figures and labelled him a “weak prick”: someone making excuses for a bad day at the office. “I didn’t need anyone else to tell me,” Topley says. “I was like, I’ve got another fracture.”

The next day, he had the scan in a London hospital which confirmed it. Two weeks later, he was under the knife.

That performance against West Indies A sustained Topley throughout the winter. After just ten games back, he had returned to somewhere near his best. That game proved he still had it. “If they’re not performing well, it’s not OK, but you can sort of accept that physically you just can’t do it anymore,” says Kevin Shine, the ECB’s lead fast bowling coach. “But he was performing so much better when he came back. It was really exciting to watch. To be ripped away (from the game by injury), you could see how tough it was for him.”

The previous winter, Topley had worked his socks off to get fit and was bowling quicker thanks to a change in his action helping him stay more upright in his delivery stride. “We were getting him to run in straight without jumping because the jumping caused him to side bend and then crunch down in those areas we thought were quite vulnerable,” says Shine. “His action was better than it ever was.”

Topley bowls against West Indies 'A' on his way to 4 for 16, his best List A figures. A few days later he was under the surgeon's knife

Topley bowls against West Indies ‘A’ on his way to 4 for 16, his best List A figures. A few days later he was under the surgeon’s knife ©Getty

Lester Wilson, the surgeon who operated on Topley, works out of the Wellington Hospital, next door to Lord’s. He is the go-to surgeon for stress fractures of the back. He is involved in the work the ECB are doing to try and understand more about why stress fractures occur and what can be done to prevent them. Topley had given his permission for Wilson to go through the story of his back problems with me.

Wilson’s office is sparse except for a hospital bed and a large desk. He swivels his PC screen round to display the x-rays of Topley’s fractures, explaining the intricacies of a process which he more or less pioneered when working with Saracens during the early stages of professionalism in rugby union.

He has now done about 80 of these types of operations over the past 12 years, 25 of which have been on cricketers. “One in three fast bowlers will get a stress fracture at some point,” Wilson says, on a cold, dark January evening. Remarkably, 5% of Joe public have stress fractures but don’t even know.

Bone fails when it is stretched rather than compressed and it’s the stretching, arching motion of bowling a cricket ball that makes bowlers more susceptible than most to stress fractures. While it is not uncommon for bowlers to relapse, Topley’s run has been particularly cruel.

Topley’s five stress fractures have been limited to two vertebrae, L3 and L4. In the second half of 2013, he fractured at L4 level but came back too soon in 2014 and was ruled out again with the same injury which hadn’t healed. Topley then fractured at L3 in 2016 but, once again, it did not heal properly and more time off in 2017 followed. Last season’s fracture occurred at L4 level, re-fracturing the same vertebrae he had fractured in 2013. Wilson says that is unprecedented.

Throw in a broken hand and shoulder surgery since 2016 and it has been a rotten run of luck for which Topley has had no real control. Sitting in a Chelmsford coffee shop in October, Topley is in the early stages of his recovery, still three months away from bowling. He orders a flat white and a plate of eggs benedict. “Someone said to me that they didn’t think any other county cricketer over the last three years would want to swap places with me,” he says, sipping his coffee. “Probably they wouldn’t.”

The decision that anyone who suffers a stress fracture has to make about their treatment is whether they opt for rest or an operation. Until now Topley has opted for rest. “There’s no right or wrong,” Wilson says. “You can’t predict if this is going to heal with another period of rest.”

When Topley re-fractured in July, however, more rest simply wasn’t going to cut it. It had to be an operation. It was the last available option.

August’s procedure involved putting a 40mm long titanium screw into Topley’s back to compress the fracture. Without it, the fracture would not heal. “If you compress with titanium, it will resist the stretching process that causes the fracture to occur in the first place,” Wilson says. The screw used is so strong that it could take your body weight.

The aim of the surgery is to restore normality. It’s a keyhole procedure, conducted under real-time x-ray which ensures Wilson aligns the screw just right and does not damage muscle mass. The prognosis is good. Wilson has never had what he calls a “late failure”: someone breaking down again at the same vertebrae that he has fixed.

In addition, every fast bowler that Wilson has operated on has returned to the game at the same level they had reached; county players have all got back to county level, international players back to international standard.

Topley recovers at the Wellington Hospital after the operation to insert a 40mm screw into his back.

Topley recovers at the Wellington Hospital after the operation to insert a 40mm screw into his back. ©Cricbuzz

The two weeks after the operation, Topley is lonely, confined to his bed and the sofa of the family home in Colchester, his body braced in a corset so as to keep his spine as still as possible. These were perhaps the hardest moments Topley has ever had to endure. He lies there looking at the ceiling, seeing his career hanging by a thread. He knows then as he does now – this is it. There are no more dice to throw.

“It is like scraping the barrel for motivation in this scenario,” he says when we meet a couple of weeks later near Liverpool Street station in the City of London. He has only been up and about for a few days.

He spends the period before Christmas between Colchester and London. After a fortnight of rest, he is only able to cycle or swim each day. Nothing else. After six weeks, body weight exercises can begin. “You find satisfaction in it,” beams Topley after one such session in October. “I put Netflix on and cycle for as long as I can. I’ve been watching the NBA Championship documentaries. I don’t know what I’ll do when I finish them.

“Various people have said I’m injury prone so you want to do something about it. But it’s not as if, if I work ten hours a day, it equals more success. Less is more in this situation but it’s hard to keep it restrained.”

Even simply cycling is a considerable improvement regarding his state of mind. For a week in September, he didn’t set foot in the gym as, well, he couldn’t be bothered to go through the mental, physical toll. But also the embarrassment. “I’d had enough of it. You go to the gym and there’s an Essex fan there, asking how my back is. They’re meaning to be nice. For him, that’s one question. But I get that five or six times a day. It is tiresome.”

In between the endless monotony of the cardio, there was a trip to see friends in Berlin, the best few days he had had in three months. Nobody knew who he was and, importantly, Topley “the injured cricketer” was left at home. “I felt so free,” he says.

A key moment in the whole process came in November when Topley had his first scan since the procedure, the one that would tell him whether the operation had been a success or if Wilson would need to operate again, setting his recovery back another four months.

We meet a few weeks before the scan. “That’s quite a big day,” says Topley. His voice trails off. “There’s no point being pessimistic about it. I think that can affect recovery, almost subconsciously. If you’re happier, it can have an effect I think.”

Thankfully, it’s good news.

“The scan shows us that there is now complete continuity in the bone,” Wilson says when he describes the x-ray on the screen in his office. “The shadow of the gap is mostly filling in and the screw looks intact, not loose, right up against the bone.” Topley’s scan was consistent with other successful surgeries Wilson has done.

Looking back at the scan a few days after I meet with Wilson, Topley admits the sense of relief he felt. He’s not sure he could have coped with another four or five months of going through the same process. “Lester said I can pretty much be a normal person again,” says Topley. “That was a nice moment. I can join in with five-a-side now.”

Surgeon Lester Wilson used real time x-rays to line up the titanium screw in Topley's L4 vertebrae.

Surgeon Lester Wilson used real time x-rays to line up the titanium screw in Topley’s L4 vertebrae. ©Cricbuzz

Topley went through all this – the operation, the rehab, the emotional toil – without a county contract.

He officially left Hampshire at the end of last season. Being left out of the Royal London One-Day Cup final at Lord’s in June after playing most of the group stage was an unhappy episode but Topley’s mind was made up long before then. The move from Essex in 2015 was meant to be the start of something big. It just never really worked out.

Leaving Hampshire added more uncertainty to what was already an uncertain time. There was, however, a positive for Topley: having no strings attached to the timeline of his recovery.

“Previously when I’ve had these and been with clubs, even when you were in pain, someone would say: ‘Well you’re supposed to be running today.’ And then you still run. Now, I’m using my own body as a bit of a gauge.”

One morning in late December, he woke up to a worrying message from his body. He felt a twinge in his back. He was distraught for the rest of the day. Had the fracture returned?

Thankfully, he woke up the next day feeling fine but it was a reminder of the mental battle that he still has to rage – against the doubt, against the apprehension. It’s a battle that is not going away anytime soon. “That’s the hardest thing about this time is that it has been a bit more up and down with how I have felt, more emotional,” he says. “The lows are quite low.” His back is the last thing he thinks about when he goes to sleep and the first thing he thinks about in the morning.

What Topley lacked in a contract he gained in family support. A happy by-product of the injury was spending time with his mother, Julia. As a youngster he attended Royal Hospital boarding school in Suffolk where his father Don, a former Essex fast-bowler himself, was the cricket master. Their bond has always been strong.

Topley saw his mother less, though she would always attend sporting fixtures and invite him and his friends back home at weekends. Now, having recently retired, she assisted him through these troublesome months. She was at Wellington Hospital for the operation and the pair went on holiday to Spain together in October. “We’ve never really had that before,” says Topley.

His friends outside the game have helped hugely. As the fear engulfed him ahead of his surgery, they took him out for drinks to remind him there was more to life than cricket. Some much-needed perspective. “I was playing professional sport, something they all wanted to do,” he says, “but I was probably the unhappiest of the bunch.”

Topley did not grow up with grand ambitions to play top-level cricket. He was a second XI player for Essex at 15, then graduated to the first team at 17 while still at school. He’d take exams at 6am before opening the bowling for the county a few hours later. It all just sort of happened. It was only when money turned up in his bank account – being at boarding school, he didn’t need much cash and didn’t notice it for a few weeks – that it hit home. “I was like, I guess this is me now. I guess this is my job.”

At various times in the first few months of his recovery, discussion turns to what he would do without cricket. After all, the game is everything he has ever done, everything he has ever known.

We discuss it three months or so after the operation, two months before he will bowl a ball again. The issue has added weight because he does not yet know whether he will get back playing. He takes his time to answer and when he does, it is a mix between pragmatism and resolve.

He’s not a cricket nut, he says. It’s an affinity based very much on talent rather than passion. Other interests such as music and film take up most of his free time. Cricket does not. But he does, interestingly, feel an obligation to the game because of the skill he possesses.

“I wouldn’t still be playing cricket if I didn’t feel like I could tear it up,” he says. “When I play, I can contribute. My record is fucking good.

“It reminds me that I am good and I should stick it out. If I play, I do affect games in a good way. I’m doing it because I’ve got a talent and I want to take it as far as I can. That’s not to say I haven’t got other talents that if I wasn’t playing cricket, I’d be doing something else.”

Topley during an early rehab session at a gym in Colchester. He would spend an hour on the bike watching Netflix.

Topley during an early rehab session at a gym in Colchester. He would spend an hour on the bike watching Netflix. ©Cricbuzz

In January, Topley headed to Australia for six weeks to spend time with Shaun Tait and Mark Pettini, former teammates at Essex, and to start the bowling process. He attended some Big Bash games, including the final where Melbourne Renegades, the team Pettini manages, won. He trained with Victoria, coached by Andrew McDonald – another friend. He saw the Arctic Monkeys and Red Hot Chili Peppers play in Melbourne.

The trip marked the last phase of his recovery. After the scan in November, Topley had ramped up his programme, adding weights and more cardio. It helped to freshen things up. Once he started bowling in Australia, he had a day off after every session to give his back time to adjust.

His first bowl since the fracture was in early February at a club ground in Bunbury, a two-hour drive outside Perth. We spoke a few days later on the phone, Topley sitting outside a bar in Melbourne and me at home in Essex. It was gentle, he said: walking through his action, bowling in a net without a batsman. About 20 balls at 50 per cent effort. Two days later, a few more balls with a bit more oomph. This continued for about a week.

Then he moved to Melbourne, where he trained with Prahran Cricket Club, and caught up with Essex fast bowler Sam Cook, who was playing there. Topley gradually increased the intensity of his bowling at the club’s sessions, bowling at batsmen, easing his way back into things. Once he joined in with Victoria, he was bowling full tilt.

There were some aches and pains along the way but nothing he wasn’t expecting and nothing anywhere near as painful as he had become used to. The physiotherapists at Victoria, the same ones that aided James Pattinson’s recovery, advised him to take a two-week break after his initial block of bowling. Let the back recover, settle down and go again.

At the end of February, he sent a Whatsapp video of himself bowling in the nets on a gloriously sunny day in Melbourne. “Day 211,” the message stated. “Today has been a good day.”

In February, Topley had one of his first bowls since the operation in Melbourne. He would gradually increase intensity over the weeks ahead

In February, Topley had one of his first bowls since the operation in Melbourne. He would gradually increase intensity over the weeks ahead ©Cricbuzz

When Topley got back to the UK, Sussex asked him to train with them. Middlesex had him down to Lord’s too. Gradually, he bowled more and more in training, getting his body used to higher workloads. It took a while, maybe longer than he expected even though he was determined not to put a timeframe on his comeback. After all, he had hardly bowled for the last three years. His body needed time to adjust.

He didn’t want to play for the sake of it either. He wanted to contribute. There was a period when he didn’t think he was ready to bowl in a match. Things just weren’t clicking. So he carried on in the nets. No rush.

With more overs, his bowling improved. He played club cricket for Reigate Priory in Surrey and then some second team games for Sussex. There have been bowling aches but nothing like the debilitating pain of the previous two years. He doesn’t even think about the twinges now. In a way, there is satisfaction in them. He’s put in a shift to deserve them.

Although there were other counties interested, in early July he signed for Sussex. He feels comfortable there. Wanted. They have been a huge support. “When I turned up, Jason Gillespie said, ‘One week or one year, don’t worry about it,'” Topley says on the day the deal is announced. “That was massively comforting. I didn’t feel like there was any pressure at all.”

Topley will focus on the T20 Blast to start with but is available for first-class cricket too. He could have tried to play some red-ball stuff earlier but was conscious of not rushing things. “If you have two options: play in four months or play in five months, always take the slower option.”

When he does get a Championship game, those who wrote him off as a first-class cricketer will be in his mind. He will have won that personal battle. You can hear the determination in his voice. “Having other people say you can’t do it is annoying,” he says.

Topley signed for Sussex in July and is available for all formats. The club made him feel wanted from the outset.

Topley signed for Sussex in July and is available for all formats. The club made him feel wanted from the outset. ©Cricbuzz

At times throughout this journey, I got a sense that Topley was putting a brave face on things. There were others when the frustration and anger shone through. Why did it keep happening to him? Vulnerability came and went fleetingly but it was there, particularly when we discussed a future outside of the game. He said that cricket wasn’t the be-all and end-all but you could tell he only half meant it.

There were times when it was clear he didn’t want to talk. He would be polite and say yes when I asked to catch up but plans would never be made. Being the “injured cricketer” can grate. But invariably when we did meet, he would be engaging and open, happy to talk about a range of subjects.

We spoke about how he loves the inclusivity of the NBA at a time when people talk of building barriers. We spoke about his creative side and his passion for music and film. We spoke about his ideas to make cricket more appealing to a wider audience, some of which were radical but full of common sense. On the day his signing was announced by Sussex, I messaged him to ask if we could have a quick chat. He said yes, so long as I called before Love Island started.

Above all, Topley did not want this to be a sob-story. He made that clear when the idea was first mooted. He wanted people to understand the struggle but he did not want sympathy.

There will still be those that doubt him, of course. He knows that. Deep down, he probably still has some doubts too. But his treatment and recovery have been different this time. That gives him hope that the outcome will be different.

“This isn’t the same story,” he told me in early January. “It’s different when you’re going through a cycle you’ve already been through. Having the surgery, it’s a different process so this is a fresh start. I’m incredibly hungry. After two years, you’re sick of the pain. I’ve got the opportunity to be pain free.

“That just makes me happy.”

© Cricbuzz