‘I was Jimmy Anderson’s first victim, then my life spiralled out of control’… Mark Vermeulen’s incredible tale of arson, a horror injury and suicide attempt
- Mark Vermeulen was man Jimmy Anderson dismissed for his first Test wicket
- Vermeulen raised a smile as Anderson celebrated his 600th Test wicket
- Vermeulen had disciplinary problems, including throwing a ball at the crowd
- He set fire to Zimbabwe’s cricket academy but was cleared and spared prison
- He was ready to end his life but ended up making a return to Test cricket
When Jimmy Anderson celebrated his 600th Test wicket at an empty Ageas Bowl on Tuesday, watching on a television some 7,700 miles away was the man he dismissed for his first.
The name of Mark Vermeulen has been linked with England’s greatest bowler since the moment he became his maiden Test victim in May 2003.
In the 17 years which have passed, Anderson has gone on to break all world records for a fast bowler, while the Zimbabwean opener only played another seven Tests in a chequered career which saw him banned for a bust-up with fans, commit arson and attempt suicide.
Mark Vermeulen was the man that Jimmy Anderson dismissed for his first Test wicket
Anderson celebrates after taking the wicket of Zimbabwe’s Vermeulen at Lord’s in May 2003
But Vermeulen is still happy to be a part of history and raised a smile at his home in South Africa as Anderson dismissed Pakistan’s Azhar Ali — before the replays rolled of that famous first wicket at Lord’s.
‘It was definitely not a nice moment at the time, but I don’t feel so bad now I know he has got another 599,’ the 41-year-old tells Sportsmail from Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape.
‘For Jimmy to play 156 Test matches as a fast bowler, to keep himself fit and put his body through all that hard work, it is an amazing effort. It would be nice if he could get another 20 wickets and get above Anil Kumble and separate those three spinners at the top.’
Vermeulen was playing just his second Test when he came up against the then 20-year-old debutant Anderson, whose first over at Zimbabwe’s other opener Dion Ebrahim went for 17.
Vermeulen pictured with an injury in 2003 after being struck by a bouncer during nets
In 2004 Vermeulen top-edged a bouncer from India’s Irfan Pathan into his helmet and fractured his skull
But the young Lancashire seamer cleaned Vermeulen up in his third over on his way to a five-wicket haul, and the batsman got out to him again in the next Test at Durham as he bagged a pair.
‘Nobody knew much about him at the time,’ recalls Vermeulen. ‘We certainly hadn’t seen any footage of him before we played that Test match at Lord’s.
‘He was obviously nervous in that first over but the ball he got me out with straightened down the slope and hit the top of middle and off. I thought, “OK, that is not a bad ball, you can’t be too upset about that”.
‘He had a bit of nip about him. He was a good line and length outswing bowler in that first couple of games that we played against him. He definitely showed potential and he has certainly fulfilled that now.’
Vermeulen was sent home from that 2003 tour of England for disciplinary reasons after ignoring instructions to travel on the team bus. It was only the start of his troubles.
Vermeulen arrives at court in 2006 facing arson charges followign the fire that destroyed the Zimbabwe Cricket academy
The following year, in a one-day international against India, he top-edged a bouncer from Irfan Pathan into his helmet and fractured his skull — the third serious head injury of his early career.
‘I had to have a six-hour operation,’ recalls Vermeulen. ‘The doctor said that between your skull and your brain you have between five and seven millimetres of leeway, and my skull was fractured in by three to four millimetres, so I was fractions away from either death or serious brain damage.
‘The doctors told me not to play cricket again but I was like, “No, I love the game too much so I will take my chances”.’
Vermeulen returned to the international scene two months later. But his disciplinary problems resurfaced, notably so when playing club cricket for Lancashire side Werneth in 2006.
Vermeulen’s career was blighted by disciplinary problems and he then attempted suicide
In a match against Ashton, he threw a ball at the crowd and then got into a scuffle with supporters, receiving a 10-year ban from all cricket in England for ‘violent and dangerous actions’, later reduced to three years on appeal.
‘There was some guy heckling me in the crowd and I threw a ball towards them,’ he explains. ‘It was at a time when everything was falling apart and I just let it get to me and I exploded. It was another heat of the moment thing.’
Worse was to follow when he returned home to Zimbabwe that year. His country had just lost their Test status and, in his anger at the way the sport was being run, he stormed the official residence of Robert Mugabe, the controversial president and patron of Zimbabwe cricket. It backfired.
‘I remember his minders took me to the central police station, down into the dungeons and interrogated me for a couple of hours,’ says Vermeulen. ‘Eventually I wrote a letter which they said they would pass on to him. Whether he ever got it or not, who knows.’
Depressed and feeling he had nowhere else to turn, Vermeulen was ‘ready to end his own life’ and drove 11 hours to Victoria Falls to sit and sleep in the water.
‘It was a combination of things,’ he explains. ‘The cricket was falling apart, my life was up in the air, not knowing what was going to happen next. I was in a negative space. It was not a good place to be.’
Vermeulen survived that episode but then hit the self-destruct button in a different way. First, he tried to burn down the pavilion of the Harare Sports Club, the headquarters of the country’s cricket board. After that arson attempt was unsuccessful, the next night he set fire to Zimbabwe’s cricket academy instead.
‘I was in total despair and I just wanted to make a statement that would say, “We need help in Zimbabwe”.’
The building was severely damaged and Vermeulen was arrested and charged. He stayed three nights in a cell and spent the next 18 months on bail.
In 2014, after overcoming his struggles, Vermeulen made a remarkable return to Test cricket
However, he was cleared and spared prison in January 2008 on the grounds of mental illness after medics proved that the head injuries he suffered earlier in his career were responsible for his behaviour.
‘When we did the EEG scan, they found a misfiring in the left hemisphere of my brain, due to all the frontal lobe impacts I had received from cricket,’ he says. ‘The result was temporary insanity.
‘It was definitely a relief not to have to go to prison, especially in Zimbabwe. You don’t want to be going to any prisons there. I don’t think many people get out.’
Against all the odds, Vermeulen was picked to play one-day cricket again for Zimbabwe in 2009, and then even more remarkably he made a Test return in 2014.
‘It felt great, it was nice from the administrators part to give me another chance,’ he admits.
The 41-year-old admits that he wishes that he did some things differently during his career
But his Test comeback was a one-off and he was banned again after making a racist comment on Facebook.
Vermeulen returned to English shores in 2016 when he signed as the overseas player for Cornish club side Newquay, but his only cricket involvement now is as a coach in South African schools.
‘I always wish some things could have been better and some things could have been different,’ he adds. ‘But that is the way life goes. It is not always a bed of roses.’
At least it hasn’t been for one half of that now noteworthy act at Lord’s all those years ago.
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