Sat opposite Lewis Hatchett in a coastal tearoom bustling with activity on a rare sun-drenched afternoon, it is difficult to fathom that the former Sussex seamer is anything but the archetypal fast bowler. Tall, broad shouldered with a confident stride, his retirement two summers ago at the age of just 26 – brought about by a second stress fracture of the back – is by no means a rare tale.
There are few paths tougher than that of the fast bowler, each pounding step reverberating through the body, causing a cacophony of tremoring aches and pains. On the first day of the 2013 Boxing Day Ashes Test alone, Mitchell Johnson covered 23 kilometres.
For Hatchett, however, none of this should ever have been possible – the first-class debut against Cambridge MCCU, nor the 102 wickets that he would take for the county of his youth. Doctors had told his parents at birth that impact and throwing sports were simply not an option.
His story is unsurpassed, perhaps even unsurpassable – not just in the cricketing sphere that dominated every phase of his life until his spinal vertebrae told him otherwise, but in the realms of professional sport at all.
Born with Poland Syndrome, leaving him without the right side of his ribcage and with no pectoral muscles on that side, by his own admission, he was not built to play cricket. The result is that one shoulder sits slightly higher than the other, while the right side of his chest appears almost flat.
As Hatchett talks through the genuine dangers that his chosen career presented, there is a reflective pride in his voice, as if even he is overwhelmed by the adversity he overcame.
“Batting was the most vulnerable thing I could ever do. If I got struck it could kill me,” he explains, pointing at his lung area, bare and unprotected without the shield of his ribs. He would have a special chest guard designed to defend himself.
What Hatchett achieved was immense. Yet, as he describes his time at Sussex, there is a modesty that defies his courage. Few – if any – on the county circuit knew of his impairment. He is not even sure whether those at the club were aware when he was first offered professional terms.
This was no oversight, however. All that Hatchett achieved came through an unremitting determination to be treated as equal.
“That’s one of the main reasons I didn’t want to tell my story before retiring,” he says of his desire to excel at a level that challenges all medical logic.
“After the Phil Hughes tragedy, would people have wanted to drag me out of the sport? Would people have targeted the area when I batted? Would they have used it for sledging?
“Pretty much 99% of why I never said anything was that. I didn’t want people to use it against me. I wanted to be judged purely on my cricket and to be accepted as a cricketer. I’m so glad I did that because I did it and I surprised people.
“I never used to tell my story and it was amazing when I did start to tell it, just how many of the guys I used to play against didn’t know anything about it.”
The effect of Poland Syndrome meant that lifting his right arm above his head was a challenge in itself – especially problematic for a left-arm bowler whose action would rely enormously on the height of his arm and strength of his right side.
South African Paralympic gold medallist Kevin Paul also has the condition; one of his arms is smaller than the other. However, Hatchett estimates that he is one of a miniscule number of physically impaired athletes to have competed in professional able-bodied sport.
After his retirement from cricket, Hatchett nearly joined Paul. As a Poland Syndrome sufferer, he could have been eligible for the Paralympics. He attended Team GB’s swimming classification in January, only to find out that he did not meet the criteria after a year’s training. It was, he admits, a difficult realisation – an understanding that life in professional sport was over.
“That was the last moment where I suddenly realised that I was never going to be a professional athlete ever again,” he recalls. “It was basically retiring again. I’m now getting to a point where I know that I’m going to go and make a difference in some other way. Life is now bigger than sport in my eyes.”
From the Paralympics, conversation turns to the world’s most notorious disabled athlete, Oscar Pistorius. Naturally, Hatchett is quick to condemn the actions of the South African. Yet, for a teenager aware of the physical limits of his body, there was no greater motivation.
“He was actually one of my heroes,” he says of the disgraced sprinter. “I sat and watched him run on the television with no legs against people who had legs. I took so much inspiration from that because I saw this guy who didn’t let his disability get in the way of competing with able-bodied athletes. I just looked at it and thought: ‘This guy is doing what I’m doing’.
“I’m so proud of what I did. I always grew up with this story running through my head – how cool would it be if this kid with this condition could go on and play sport. I loved that idea and I was so proud that I was able to achieve it.
“Obviously, it’s unfortunate that it was all cut short by injury but if someone had told a 15-year-old me that I would play for six years at Sussex, I’d have bitten your arm off right there and then. All I wanted was a contract. The highlight of my career was that day, when I signed that piece of paper.”
As is so often the case, the struggle to reach the pinnacle enhances the ultimate sadness of the story’s ending. A spare part in teams through his mid-teens, it was Hatchett’s persistence that eventually led to his chance in the county setup. As a 15-year-old on the fringes of his Sussex age-group squad, he begged then-coach Mark Robinson to let him train with the first team – rubbing shoulders with Murray Goodwin, Chris Adams and his cricketing idol, Jason Lewry. Even when he made his County Championship debut, he acknowledges that there was muttering from those who did not think he would make it.
For Hatchett, the fight to establish himself in the first team would, ultimately, help when forced to quit the sport he loved and lived for.
“It was really taken out of my hands,” he explains. “When you’re told that even pinning your back together with screws will not prevent it from snapping again, they’re kind of giving you the chance to make a decision but really trying to open your eyes to the reality at the same time.
“I was meant to sit down with head coach Mark Davis about a new contract and I knew they’d say they couldn’t offer me a new deal because I’d been broken and then I’d broken again. I knew that’s what the conversation would be. So, I sat down and said: ‘Mark, I’m retiring. I have to leave this sport’.
“There was just this part of me that was saying: ‘Lew, your body unfortunately just isn’t cut out to play this sport. You’ve run that tank dry’. Obviously, I wish I’d played for England – it would have been awesome and an amazing story. But at the same time, I took over 100 wickets for Sussex. And to do it with this condition does make me incredibly proud.”
As he sips on his coffee, it is difficult to gaze at Hatchett and see anything even slightly different. It is a testament to an unyielding thirst for self-improvement that – to the naked eye – there is no evident imbalance on his shoulders. His physique is that of an elite athlete. None of the customers stop to stare, the table next to ours remains empty and free from eavesdroppers. Even if they had done, Hatchett does not care – not any more, at least.
The stigma of body image remains an elephant in professional sport’s room – a room obsessed with a utopian physical preconception, emphasised in recent years by social media and an unhealthy fascination with photo-editing.
“I was so self-conscious growing up,” he says. “I was the only one in my side who had a physical impairment. For me, having my shirt off in the changing room was really difficult. I got used to it around the guys, but whenever we signed a new player it was a challenge.
“Because of the society we live in, if you tell 95% of people to shut their eyes and think of what an athlete looks like, they’ll think of someone like Usain Bolt because he’s huge with abs and massive muscles. In my own mind back then, I was incomplete. But I don’t look at it like that anymore. I see it as having accepted my condition. I can’t make it any different or wish for the part of my body that’s missing. But I can make do with what I’ve got.
“However, growing up was definitely hard and the older I got, the harder it got. Models have these huge platforms to throw edited images of their bodies to the world and whole highlight reels of what they perceive the perfect body to look like.”
What Hatchett proved on the field, however, was that the notion of perfection was a myth. Gritted teeth give way to a self-deprecating chuckle as he describes his Twenty20 debut. His first and only over against Middlesex – live on Sky Sports – would be dispatched for 26 runs. He quickly returns to the matter at hand. Does he still feel the stigma of body consciousness?
“The more experiences I’ve had in life, the more I realised that it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Girlfriends were really important because, even being with a girl for the first time, there was just that quandary of what to do.
“Are they going to notice? Am I going to tell them about it? How am I going to tell them? Are they going to run? Will they stay? What’s going to happen? Will it be an issue? I’d start thinking four weeks down the line – would they turn to me and say they don’t want to be with me because of this? At the end of the day, hardly any girl I’ve ever been with has ever had an issue with it. They fall in love with you. Nobody in the world is that shallow. If they care, then they’re not the right people for you anyway.”
A recent holiday in Barbados provided the acid test. The beach, Hatchett explains, has always been where he has felt most vulnerable – surrounded by the public, shirtless and conscious of the eyeballs of those around him, fully aware that the curiosity of human nature makes him a target.
“I see people stare, but if there are people who take issue with it, they’re probably people with whom I don’t really want to interact. It’s their problem, not mine. It is a continuous tussle with your ego and with the acceptance of it, but I’ve found a way to do that. For me, a lot of it is humour. If I make fun of it, I take the power away from anyone else.
“The biggest thing that made me really strong with it growing up were the little bits of teasing I might get. There were occasional times when people would mention it and I was so militant against people talking about it as a kid that I took offence. I would tell myself that I’d achieve more than these people – and I’d do it with Poland Syndrome.”
It is why Hatchett so detests and rejects the idea that talent can be God-given, thrust into the veins of a child as it exits the womb. The combination of fast bowling and Poland Syndrome is a sporting paradox. Only those to have leapt at the crease at the end of a long run-up can fully appreciate its physical traumas. To do so without pectoral muscles and a chronically weak right side is a physical wonder. Two stress fractures in two years were the ultimate prize in this unforgiving universe.
“I’m a living and breathing example of someone who was not put on this earth to play cricket,” he laughs, bashfully. “Yet, I made it as a professional cricketer. I worked hard enough to get it. I don’t believe that you’re born with the talent to play.
“Even if people say that they’ve got a child who can just pick up a ball and smash it, has he had a ball or a bat in his hands from a young age? I’ve never seen a baby pick up a bat and whack it. There is such an exaggeration of people’s idea of what a talented child is.”
As the café empties and chairs begin to be stacked around us, there is a brief pause in our conversation. Interest levels in county cricket’s stalwarts have, perhaps, never been as low as they are now. The rise of white-ball cricket and domestic franchise competitions have seen to that. It makes Hatchett even rarer. Having originally hidden his condition, is he aware of his own importance as a genuine trailblazer?
“It’s a really tough one,” he says, with a puff of his cheeks. “Even when people pay me to go and give talks, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of people paying me. So many people give these talks and they are all inspiring and they all have a slightly different message.
“But I’ve just looked at it and there genuinely is nobody like me, or with my story. There simply is nobody that played able-bodied sport with a condition. I really do look at it as something that is truly unique.
“I used to get worried that my story was going to die, and I was like: ‘If I don’t tell it tomorrow, nobody is ever going to hear it’. But now I understand that the story is never going anywhere – whether I’m 35 or 85. I can tell it wherever and whenever.”
This understanding has opened his eyes to the crippling machismo that for so long had held him back from telling his story, petrified of displaying a vulnerability in a bubble of traditional masculinity.
“The world of cricket had given me this idea of having to be strong and not showing weakness,” he confesses. “I didn’t want to talk about it because I was afraid of showing weakness. I didn’t want people to use it as something against me.”
Two summers on from a second stress fracture that would change the direction of a life on its axis, Hatchett is a qualified yoga instructor. Like his previous battles, he is out to prove a point. He admits that he first scoffed at the thought of yoga; “I told myself it was for women,” he tells me. Many sportsmen, he acknowledges, simply do not want to know. Of those that do, the spiritual aspect is still viewed as a step too far from the culture of machismo pedalled by professional sport.
Hatchett, however, has been fully converted. Since taking his qualifications, he has set his sights on becoming sport’s go-to yoga teacher. He believes that the practice added years to his cricket career.
“When I was on my teacher training, there were eleven people and nine of them were women,” he says.
“There were things on that course that hugely took me out of my comfort zone as a professional sportsman – hug parties, dancing with no music. I threw myself into it – if you’re trying, you cannot lose. There can be no failure.
“You can’t make people want to do it. All I can do is tell people – I’m a good case study, I played cricket with my condition for a little bit longer because of yoga. The only thing that ever stopped me originally was my ego. And that’s the same for the other players out there.”
Lewis Hatchett was never meant to play cricket even recreationally, let alone professionally. Whether he could play sport was the first question his father asked the surgeon as Hatchett was born. He has baffled doctors, coaches and societal stereotypes ever since. Selling yoga to his former colleagues is the next test. Having spent 28 years challenging perceptions, he has every chance.