JLT One-Day Cup 2017
Play it again, Sam: Harper's journey back
After suffering severe concussion following a freak accident, Victoria's young 'keeper-batsman has rediscovered his love for cricket
Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.
Sam Harper nods politely as the doctors tell him everything will get back to normal. But in the back of his mind he wonders whether it really will.
The rational part of him knows what they're saying is probably true but the piercing pain that's kept him from sleeping, days after being clocked in the head with a cricket bat, is telling him otherwise.
He wonders if the doctors are wrong.
He wonders if he'll remember how to walk. He wonders if he'll have the energy to hold a conversation again. And although he's sick of being asked whether the hunger to pick up a bat or his wicketkeeping gloves again still burns inside him, a small part of him wonders if it actually does.
"'Eventually, it's going to be fine'," Harper recalls being told. "'You're going to be fine, you're going to play cricket again, you're going to walk again'.
"And 99.99 per cent of me believed that.
"But there was always that little one per cent going, 'What if it doesn't get any better?'"
Harper remembers the first three or four days after being struck as little more than a blur.
The diminutive wicketkeeper, one of the most highly-rated young glovemen in the country playing in just his sixth first-class game, was felled in a "freak accident" when South Australia's Jake Lehmann inadvertently collected him in the helmet with his bat.
Harper had suffered concussion once before. Then, he had waved the doctor away and continued batting. But this was different.
Initially, his lack of function was actually beneficial. But once the shock wore off, the pain took hold.
"The first few days weren't actually that hard because I was never really with it," a wide-eyed Harper tells reporters, six months on from the initial blow.
"This one was completely different to the one I'd had before, just on a new scale of pain.
"I can remember not sleeping and getting woken up every half an hour in pain.
"You just had this pain, just shooting straight through your eyes and for me, straight through the back of your head.
"I just couldn't get close to feeling anything well in the back of your head. That translated down through your body, you just lost all motion and sense through your body."
Harper is not a hypochondriac; no-one who chooses a craft famously associated with broken fingers and days on end of repetitive squatting in the heat could be.
Lying in a hospital bed with the curtains drawn and a nurse by your side for 24 hours a day isn't anyone's idea of fun.
Aside from the odd conversation with his dad Bryan – a local cricket legend in Melbourne's south-east and the brother of former Victoria batsman Laurie – and watching Australia play Sri Lanka on a small television, Harper's interaction with the outside world was limited.
"I was pretty determined to walk away and I'm a pretty independent person so I didn't love the notion of getting help," says the 20-year-old.
"I know I needed help, but I was like, 'I can walk for goodness sakes'. But it got to the stage where it was actually dangerous to get out of bed alone.
"You try sitting in hospital for nine or 10 days even feeling well – you drive yourself mental. It was tough.
"There was a period there in hospital where … where it was a little bit scary. I knew how to walk – no-one forgets how to walk – but I couldn't do it for some sort of bizarre reason."
All told, Harper spent three weeks in hospital and, while it's difficult to imagine him uttering a bad word about anybody, his gratitude to the medical staff at Royal Adelaide Hospital and Wakefield Hospital is overwhelmingly sincere.
But as the worst of the pain subsided and he was cleared to fly back to Melbourne, the nagging feeling that something wasn't right lingered.
Resting made him fidgety. Exposure to the sharp light of day made him nauseous.
Curiosity got the better of him. And so he jumped online.
"Google sometimes tells you not what you want to see," he says. "Initially I did (use the internet) because there was a stage when I was at home for the two or three weeks where there was a lot of questions that I had.
"While I was getting them answered as well as I could from the surgeons, they didn't really know everything, so it's a natural human thing to try and find out.
"I really wanted to know why I was feeling (how I did) and how long it would last for."
For Harper, basic tasks had become a chore and, at the encouragement of the rehabilitation clinic he was visiting, he had to force himself to take his dog Bubba for a daily walk in Wantirna, near his family home in Melbourne’s east.
"I knew that when I went outside I was going to feel crap, but the more I did it, the more I exposed my brain to it, the more I told myself this is normal, then eventually what I was used to again," Harper said.
"I always had confidence. The doctors were always telling me that the walking and talking, and the health would come back normally.
"I always had faith in that, but it's one thing to hear it and it's another thing to actually (have it happen).
"It wasn't until I actually started doing it again, I was like, 'I'm going to be fine here'."
For a week after he was struck, Harper was oblivious to the public quarrel that ensued after his exit from the Adelaide Oval. In fact, he hadn't even seen a replay of the incident until his Dad suggested doing so may aid his recovery.
Bushrangers players publicly questioned why the Redbacks had denied Harper a replacement player, though it was later confirmed the match would have lost its first-class status had a substitute been permitted.
The Bushrangers have a reputation for being hard-nosed and combustible in equal measure; in his autobiography, Mike Hussey recalled how Andrew McDonald, now Victoria's coach, on Test debut broke the ice in the Australian change rooms after a dust-up between teammates by coolly telling one of the apologetic participants, "Don't worry mate, this happens all the time in Victoria."
The affable Harper is a curious fit into this dynamic. He chuckles at hearing about Victoria's antics after the blow and, in the same breath, speaks glowingly of the South Australia Cricket Association for their assistance.
"I know the boys were chanting, 'We'll beat them with 10 men'," he says with a wide grin. "That was sort of funny.
"Credit to the boys and Cricket Victoria, it's such a tight-knit culture. It's a great bunch of boys and they were fantastic through the whole process.
"In saying that, the SACA boys and support staff were as well. Me and Jason (his manager, Jason Bakker) had lunch with them two weeks ago and with Jake (Lehmann).
"That was a great thing to do, we went and said thank you for all your help. And put a full stop on it all."
Eventually, Harper had cricket back on his mind.
Each Thursday as part of his rehab program he'd meet up in the MCG indoor nets with former Bushrangers coach Greg Shipperd. At first, he hit back some gentle underarms. Then some throw-downs. Before long, he was on the bowling machine.
He'd count down the days until his next hit.
"In the initial week or two when I was in hospital, the actual game of cricket actually felt like it was just a game and there was so much more to life than just the game," he reflects.
"But once I actually started feeling better and started walking, my brain was just dying to get back playing cricket.
"It's probably given me a good perspective on how lucky we are to do what we do."
As the preseason began, Harper – along with Will Pucovski, another highly-rated young Vic who suffered a concussion last summer – were thrown straight back into proceedings.
"They weren't really eased into it – as soon as they got the all clear from the medicos they were back into it full-on," Bushrangers veteran Cameron White, who was standing just metres away at slip when Harper was struck at Adelaide Oval, told cricket.com.au.
"Our fast bowlers in the nets, they weren't shy in holding back on bowling bouncers.
"Sammy's been working really hard at his game. He's one of our hardest trainers for a young man.
"I think everyone wants to see Sam do really well."
Last week, Harper was back in Victorian colours. He took a catch and made 11 as the Bushrangers lost to Western Australia at the WACA.
He stood up to the stumps to leg-spinners White and Fawad Ahmed without issue.
"I'm a wicketkeeper, I'm going to 'keep up to spinners a lot in my career, I'm not going to change my stance or my technique because of that incident," said Harper, who’s worked with former Redbacks ‘keeper Tim Ludeman during the off-season.
"You can't really control a pull shot swinging back around and the bat flying in your face."
On what's traditionally been the bounciest pitch in the country, the right-hander took on a short ball from quick David Moody and was perhaps a little unlucky when his upper cut was neatly caught by Michael Klinger on the third man boundary.
"As a small guy, the pull shot is one of the better strokes you try to use," he says with a smile before turning serious. "People get hit and bowlers bowl quick bouncers so you've got to have a technique to pull it or duck it."
And so the conversation comes back around to cricket. And Harper has stopped wondering whether everything will get back to normal.