When nine-year old Ali Layard was accidentally knocked off a narrow boat in 2012, he was dragged into the propeller, which removed 90% of tissue and muscle on his right leg between knee and ankle. The latissimus dorsi muscle was taken from his back and transferred to his leg, then he had a skin graft (from his thigh) to cover the transplant. And that was the good leg.
His left leg is the one that holds him back the most. The propeller removed the base of the tibia and most of his knee cap. A new knee cap is impossible because there’s nothing to support it. Ali was told by the consultant that his best case scenario would be that he might be able to walk with a stick and a stiff leg.
However, that was then and this is now. In one week’s time, 16 year-old leg-spinning all-rounder Ali will pull on his England shirt as part of the 15-man Physical Disability (PD) squad competing in the PD World Series in Worcestershire. Six weeks in intensive care, five months in hospital, years in rehab and an unimaginable amount of grit and determination have brought him to a moment he’s always dreamed of.
“While I was in hospital, I remember the IPL being on the TV. That reminded me that this was the game I fell in love with and always wanted to play. I was desperate to get better and it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t play cricket again. When I pull on the England shirt, it’s an incredible feeling, it’s everything I’ve been working towards.”
The England PD team join India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the six-team T20 series starting on 5 August. England are strong and will be keen to avenge their defeat against another tournament favourite, Pakistan, in last year’s T20 International PD Tri-Series final.
England showed their commitment to the PD game with the appointment of fellow leggie Ian Salisbury as the first full-time head coach in 2017, at which time he already had an eye on the upcoming tournament as an opportunity for England to take a win on the world stage. The backroom staff now includes all you’d expect of a professional cricket team, including specialist coaches, physios and an analyst.
If they don’t win, it won’t be for want of preparation. “We’ve been preparing for this for months, ” says Ali. “We’ve had weekend and four-day training camps, lots of hard work in the gym and in the nets, lots of practice games. We’ve also spent a lot of time discussing everyone’s roles in the side, strategies against certain players and how the team works together as a whole.”
Ali has worked hard at his physical fitness as well as the technical aspects of his game. “The biggest thing for me is strength in my legs, ” he says. “Over the last few years, I was getting injured a lot but I feel much stronger now. I train at least five times a week, running or strength training or both.
“Physically, it’s been a long story since the accident but it’s been ok because of the amazing support I’ve had. Mentally, though, it’s been hard. It’s difficult to get your head round such a terrible injury. I had no confidence for a while, not even wanting to go outside wearing shorts – but I think I’ve come out stronger. You push through it and come out the other side.”
Ali says that visualisation is a tool that has become a huge part of his game, helping to calm his nerves and prepare him for the game ahead. He adds, “I’ll visualise my batting, my bowling and even my fielding. For example, I’ll visualise being at backward point, watching even for those small movements of the batsman’s feet that will give me an extra fraction of a second to begin moving the right way in anticipation of a shot.
“PD cricket is a great standard and not many people realise that because it’s not well enough known yet,” says Ali. “I’ve had people watch us play and genuinely not realise it’s a PD match; when they find out, they come up to me to ask what my disability is.”
Ali only found out about PD cricket at all thanks to former county paceman Steffan Jones, who spotted Ali by chance and quickly got him into Wellington College, where Jones is Director of Sport, on a scholarship at the age of 14. Jones then introduced Ali to the PD set-up. Ali is now a regular in the school’s first team.
Last year, Ali also made his debut for the able-bodied Somerset U15s. He had been in the reserve squad and was brought in to make his debut after someone dropped out. Ali took 6-44. “It was the moment I realised I really could match up to able-bodied kids and from there I really pushed on.”
Quietly spoken, polite and self-effacing he may be but Ali is resolutely ambitious. He says he would like to cement a place in the England PD side if possible, play for Somerset U17s (he didn’t make the squad this year) and ultimately play professional able-bodied cricket for Somerset. Citing the likes of Adil Rashid, Jason Roy and Jos Buttler as the cricketers who inspire him, he says:
“I’ll keep working in the gym, get stronger, get quicker, keep tailing the able-bodied lads then push on past them if I can. To play just one game for Somerset, even if I just came on as a sub fielder and took a catch, would be amazing.”
Meanwhile, Ali is joining up with his England PD team-mates who, he says, welcomed him with open arms. “I felt at home straight away,” he says. “They’re amazing and they inspire me to become even better.” How will it feel to play?
“I’d love more people to know about, and come to watch, the PD World Series but I don’t really mind how many people are in the crowd because once we all pull on our England shirts, we’re still playing for our country, being the very best we can be.”