Editor's Note: This article, originally published on 21 January, 2016, is being re-published in light of ICC's decision to provide specially-designed helmets to umpires in the upcoming World Twenty20 Championship in India to ensure they are protected from wayward hits
The sight of Indian cricketer Barinder Sran warming up in the morning must have petrified Aussie umpire John Ward so much that he rushed to grab a helmet for protection while officiating the fourth ODI between India and Australia at Canberra on Wednesday.
Sran did not make the playing eleven but Ward nevertheless decided that he needed protection and in the process made history by becoming the first umpire to don a helmet in a One-Day International match.
Ward had reasons to be ‘twice-shy’ at the sight of Sran. A couple of months ago , under the ACB- BCCI umpire exchange programme, he stood in the Ranji Trophy league tie between Tamil Nadu and Punjab in Dindigal, a small town in Tamil Nadu. A powerful shot from Sran slammed him on the head and knocked him to the ground. A dazed Ward had to be taken to the hospital before a series of checks set all fears to rest.
On Wednesday, although the ‘once-bitten’ Ward sought extra protection, the other umpire, England’s Richard Kettleborough didn’t. And he paid for it. In Ishant Sharma’s first over, a powerful straight drive ricocheted off the bowler and stumps and smashed into the umpire’s shin. The resultant numb foot and swelling of the shin ensured that he had to go off the ground and be replaced by TV umpire Wilson.
Of late, with cricket’s promoters looking for ways and means to speed up the game and further popularise it, ODIs and T20s have become excessively batsman centric to the extent that umpires’ lives are in real danger. Umpire Ward needed a crack on the head before he wised up to the safety provided by helmets.
There is simply no denying that the demands of modern cricket have spurred incredible technological advances in the manufacture of a cricket bat. These modern-day power-wands have enabled savage hitters like Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers to give millions of their fans great joy. But they are also a source of grave danger to unprotected umpires.
Nothing brought this sharper into focus than another tragic death within two days of the well-documented death of Australian opening batsman Phil Hughes last season. Israeli Hillel Oscar, an experienced cricketer and umpire who had stood in international matches, died when he was struck in the head while officiating a match.
While injuries in cricket have generally been non-fatal, the spurt of T20 matches and tournaments where the emphasis is on mindless power hitting has resulted in greater frequency of injuries to umpires; many of them decidedly serious.
Australian umpire, Karl Wentzel, mockingly referred to as the ‘umpire who wears the helmet’ was hit in the mouth by a viciously struck ball while officiating a match in Australia. It knocked out five teeth that required him to have a series of operations that cost around Rs 25 lakh. He took to the helmet after that.
In England last season, 25 professional umpires unnerved by the death of the Israeli umpire and the numerous close shaves they themselves had, voiced their concern to the ECB. Their grouse, and fear, was that with bats becoming so good and the format of the game encouraging big hits, the ball was pinging off the meat of the bat and causing grave danger to umpires.
CK Nandan, a former first class cricketer and currently one of India’s representatives in ICC’s International Panel of Umpires admitted that when the likes of Chris Gayle smashed deliveries straight back at the bowler, the ball was just a blur as it whizzed past the umpire.
“Yes, there is a genuine fear of the umpire being knocked-out. T20 cricket and ODIs encourage big hitting and when a powerful striker hits the ball it just whizzes past you in a fraction of a second,” he said.
Another former first class cricketer and current umpire, K Srinath while agreeing with Nandan, pointed out that the fastest bowler would be clocked around 150 kmph. But shots off the meat of the bat were whizzing past at twice that speed. “If an umpire is in the path of that shot he is finished,” he said.
Cricket must take cue from baseball
Taking these apprehensions into consideration, cricket must swiftly embrace some of the safety features of American sport baseball. In baseball, one umpire stands immediately behind the keeper and is therefore exposed to relentless danger. However because baseball’s administrators are far more progressive and proactive than cricket’s, they have ensured that their man is relatively better protected.
The baseball umpires wear superbly designed hard-shell protectors for the chest (Chest Pad) underneath their jacket or shirt. These chest pads are made of open-cell foam covered by hard outer plastic for absorbing the blow from a foul tip or even a bat thrown in the umpire’s direction. The purpose of the protector is to cover the torso that is most vulnerable to an injury that could break a bone (ribs, collar bone) or stop the heart or lungs.
Baseball umpires also wear wonderfully designed face masks which have cross bars (made of steel) for maximum protection. The masks could also have an attachment to protect the throat. The throat- covering was introduced recently after a splinter flew off a batter’s club and lodged itself in the officiating umpire’s throat. The umpire’s protective gear also includes head gear, abdomen guard and shin guards, all light enough not to impair mobility.
Cricket umpires would do well to adopt all these protective equipment -- helmets, face masks, chest guards, shin guards and abdomen guards post haste.
The tragedy, however, is that cricket’s administrators have never been hands-on when it comes to safety. Many of the equipment worn by close-in fielders, wicket-keepers and batsmen are not even mandated by the rules of the game. Some cricketer or the other took to it in some part of the world and others gradually followed suit.
But now, with so many umpires being battered and bruised while officiating, the ICC needs to wake up and equip its least appreciated and cared-for personnel. The last thing required is an on-field tragedy under full media glare in a major event like the forthcoming World T20 or the IPL T20 before the ICC is goaded into action.