Bouncing back from an attack that led to a coma is only part of Jesse Ryder’s remarkable comeback
The 56 hours of darkness haunt him still. The time he spent devoid of all sensation. He couldn’t feel the damage to his brain or the pain in his lung. Didn’t know that outside, in the parking lot beneath his hospital room, a crowd of New Zealand cricket fans had gathered by candlelight to hold a vigil for his recovery.
It was March 30, 2013, and the bad boy of Kiwi cricket lay in a medically induced coma. Two days had passed since he’d been felled by a punch to the head during a night out. He had no memory of collapsing to the ground, no understanding of how or why he’d wound up unconscious and shaking in a pool of his own vomit and blood on the pavement outside a McDonald’s in Christchurch.
No, all Jesse Ryder knew as he regained consciousness was that something invasive was in his throat and he wanted it out. There he was, a gifted-yet-troubled cricketer, clutching at his mouth and neck, struggling to remove the breathing tube that had helped keep him alive for more than two days. It was a moment of panic. And yet, it was also the first clear sign of recovery.
It didn’t take long for news to filter out of the hospital that Ryder was awake. Soon, fans began questioning whether one of New Zealand’s best batsmen might ever again take to the cricket pitch. But the speculation on Ryder’s career was premature; for at that moment, Ryder was really just lucky to be alive.
Seven months later and still feeling the lasting effects of a near-fatal dose of blunt-force trauma to the head, Ryder has mounted a remarkable comeback, taking to the batsman’s crease on Oct. 27 and scoring a century in his first innings back in New Zealand domestic Test cricket. That’s no small feat for any batsman, least of all one still labouring under headaches and fatigue.
Cricket always has been regarded as a gentleman’s game. An old-fashioned pastime beloved by the royal and the rabble alike; a contest between batsmen, bowlers and wicket-keepers, all dressed in their whitest whites, breaking for tea, crumpets and cucumber sandwiches. But the genteelness is just a facade, a hoity-toity illusion that distracts from the true emotion of the game and its cast of fascinating athletes. And few stars have more dramatic stories than Ryder, whom fans know as much for the tabloid fodder of his late-night exploits as his prowess with a bat.
Ryder is a naturally gifted athlete who has been fighting adversity ever since he was abandoned by his parents when he was 14 years old. It was as a teenager sleeping on couches in his friends’ parents’ houses that he discovered alcohol and cricket as two very different means of escape.
In a 2010 interview with a New Zealand news website, he described himself as a binge drinker who began abusing alcohol as a young cricketer. “I was always drinking with the boys in the team, and that’s about the point in my life where it all started, I guess.”
Since exploding onto the Kiwi cricket scene in 2008, Ryder’s career has been marked by both brilliance and controversy. The 29-year-old is an all-rounder with a 40.93 Test average who has helped lead the New Zealand national team (the eighth-ranked team in the world, colloquially known as the Black Caps) to victory over international rivals, including a double-century against India in 2009. That same year he made the jump to the Indian Premier League, signing with Royal Challengers Bangalore. He struggled with the Challengers, switching to the Pune Warriors in 2011 before joining the Delhi Daredevils in 2013.
Criticized throughout his career for his weight and inconsistent play, his detractors have called him “too fat” to represent his country. Meanwhile, his late-night antics earned him a reputation as one of New Zealand’s more controversial figures, especially after he was forced to end his 2008 season early after slicing his hand while trying to break into the bathroom of a Christchurch bar at 5:30 a.m. Regardless, he remained a regular on the national team until March 2012, when, after numerous disagreements with the team’s coaching staff, Ryder resigned from international play in order to work on what the team described as “a number of health and fitness-related goals.”
News of his self-imposed exile from international play was initially welcomed by fans who had grown tired of reading about his misadventures. Though he was no longer representing his country on the world stage, he continued to play domestically for the Wellington Firebirds, one of six teams in the New Zealand cricket league.
It was as a Firebird that he travelled to Christchurch on March 27 for a match against the Canterbury Wizards. He’d gone out with a dozen teammates after that game, to Aikman’s, a bar in the suburbs of New Zealand’s third-largest city. That’s where the memories stop.
What follows has been pieced together from witness accounts to local media and authorities who say Ryder was less than rowdy that night at the bar: Just a professional cricketer as recognizable in his country as any hockey star in ours, sipping beers with friends.
It wasn’t until he exited the bar, the last of his teammates to do so, that the trouble began. Confronted by two men by the door, a short conversation quickly turned heated and led to a shoving match. Moments later, as Ryder made his way across the street to a nearby McDonald’s to rejoin his teammates, he was beaten by anywhere from two to four men. Witnesses described finding him bleeding, vomiting and unconscious in the McDonald’s parking lot while his teammates ate inside. Rushed to a nearby hospital, doctors induced a coma to save Ryder’s life.
Soon the candlelight vigil started and New Zealand’s prime minister began speaking out against the “sinister” and “vicious” attack on a national celebrity. Two men were subsequently charged in connection with the incident. One pleaded guilty to assault in May. The other opted to contest the charge, his lawyer alleging that the media had turned the public against his client by publishing factual inaccuracies and overblowing and sensationalizing the extent of the injuries.
Ryder’s path to recovery and his recent return to cricket has been nearly as dramatic. He was barely out of hospital when he learned he’d tested positive for two illegal substances found in a weight-loss drug he’d been taking before the attack. He was banned from first-class play for six months as a result. But the ban was the least of his worries.
In an interview with New Zealand media, he described the days and weeks of rehab he had to endure before even considering a return to the game. “At first I just couldn’t walk properly,” he said. “My balance was just so off and I was struggling to walk and the weakness was crazy. Just walking to the bathroom and back, I’d be breathless, taking in big, deep breaths. It took ages to get back to normal.”
Still, he has managed to focus on what he does best: knocking balls around a cricket field. His return to competition in a four-day match with the Otago Volts of the New Zealand cricket league last month made international headlines. As did his recent remarks that he plans to regain his position with the Black Caps. Though his bat would be a valued addition, it’s unclear if he’ll ever again be the player he once was.
“We just want him to focus on playing cricket again after the attack, and to get back to enjoying the game,” a spokeswoman for the Black Caps recently told Sportsnet magazine. “If he delivers consistent results, then he’ll be considered for higher honours.”
Ryder says he knows he has much to prove. Trimmed down, thanks to rehab and a prolonged sabbatical highlighted by a regimented personal training routine, he’s on his way back. A few more centuries might speed him along.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.