It’s been a little over a year since the cricket world was shaken by the death of Phil Hughes. At the time, his death seemed like an anomaly. The binary system of cricket, which so far only dealt in the results ‘win’ or ‘lose’, threw up a chilling third one: ‘death’. Hughes’ passing threw into focus something that most within the game already knew. That cricket, and in fact all sport, has underlying dangers. His death was like the one solar flare that caused us to take a closer look at the sun, only to realise it wasn’t the first, and hasn’t been the last.
Since November 2014, at least four more cricketers have died on the field. Two of these deaths (the Israeli umpire Hilel Awasker and English club cricketer Bavalan Pathmanathan) were triggered by the impact of a cricket ball.
Cricket, stripped down to its most visceral, is an activity in which a projectile is hurled in the direction of the batter for him/her to manipulate. The necessity of taking the very basic precautions while attempting something like that cannot be overstated. Saba Karim and Mark Boucher’s careers could have been much longer had they been wearing a helmet. But even with a helmet, the cricket ball can do serious damage. Stuart Broad had his nose broken by a Varun Aaron bouncer, which sneaked through his helmet grille. And Craig Keiswetter suffered an even more unfortunate fate, when a similar injury permanently hampered his vision, and forced him into early retirement, despite having his helmet on.
Cricket can hurt, make no mistake. Ask Richard Kettleborough’s shins. Ask Ajinkya Rahane’s fingers. Ask anyone standing south of David Warner. But the reason I write this piece, is an incident involving a young cricketer who I have shared a dressing room with. Last month, Humaira Kazi was hit on her head while batting by a misdirected throw that left her unconscious for a few minutes, and with a hairline fracture of the skull. She was lucky that that was all. She would have been safer had she been wearing a helmet, but she considered it unnecessary since she was batting against spin.
Unfortunately, unless facing a threatening fast bowler, many players prefer not to wear a lid while batting. Is it hubris? Or just poor role models? After all, MS Dhoni does it. But this leaves players like Kazi susceptible to injuries through freak accidents. But a closer look shows us that there is nothing ‘freak’ about them.
The internet tells us that a freak accident is, “an incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.” It is the type of thing that is seen to be so improbable, it’s not worth the effort of taking protection against. “No need to wear armour on my heel, I’ll never get hurt there”, Achilles probably though. But this excellent story by Andy Bull in the Guardian points out to the public something that my own experience in cricket has already taught me. These freak accidents aren’t as uncommon as you would think.
In my own fifteen years as a cricketer, I have been struck on the head twice. The first time, while batting, a full toss slid off the back of my bat and onto my helmet. The second, a stray ball from the opposition nets hit me on the back of my head. Luckily, I walked away with just a headache. I myself have hit quite a few players on the head with my bowling. In the first of these, the batter wasn’t wearing a helmet. It is a memory that I would rather forget.
My Western Railway teammate and Delhi cricketer Lalita Sharma recalled a rather more painful incident. The full toss she missed nicked the back of her bat and shattered her unprotected nose. She had to be airlifted from Surat to Delhi for reconstructive surgery. Although she was almost miraculously back in action in a week, the doctor said a few centimetres here and there and she could have lost her eyesight.
Considering that women’s cricket is only a small piece in the big Indian cricket pie, even the most conservative extrapolation of my experience with head injuries gives us an idea of the number of these ‘freak accidents’ that must be occurring in India alone. Sceptical? Visit Azad maidan or Oval maidan in Mumbai. At first, the wonder of seeing so many matches being played simultaneously in such a small area will hit you. Once it wears off, it is likely that a cricket ball will. Mumbai’s maidans are a melting pot with all the ingredients to concoct a ‘freak accident’.
The cricket world is not totally unaware of the existing dangers. All test playing nations have agreed to adopt the 2013 British safety standards as stipulated by the ICC, but implementation of these guidelines is the prerogative of each individual board. Some have been more diligent about this than others. Noticed the colourful honeycomb patterned neck protection that all players in the BBL now sport on their helmets? They are a result of a Cricket Australia policy change requiring all national and state contracted players to adhere to updated safety standards. The ECB have already made helmets mandatory for all batters -irrespective of the speed of the bowler- as well as close in fielders and wicketkeepers standing up to the stumps. They are also exploring protective equipment for umpires.
Which raises the question of why the BCCI haven’t yet adopted safer practices. When asked about the ICC directive, a senior BCCI official told Firstpost, “We have issued advisories to all state associations, regarding the new safety standards that have been decided upon with regards to helmets.” However, unlike the ECB and CA, the BCCI have not yet made helmets mandatory. “It is a positive step that they (the other boards) have taken. However, enforcing something like across the country length and breadth of our country is not that straightforward. We have provided clear guidelines about safety precautions that should be taken.”
“Just as we want better phones which have latest technology, players should also keep upgrading their safety equipment. The extra protection post Phil Hughes incident for back side of the skull is the reference point.” Sanjay Bangar, the Indian team batting coach, told Firstpost. But in India, the cricketing fraternity has had to take individual decisions with regards to safety. While whether to wear a helmet or not is a choice left to the player, most coaches agreed that it’s just common sense. Niranjan Godbole, former Maharashtra Ranji trophy cricketer who still plays club cricket in England said, “I always instruct my wards to wear a helmet, even if they are facing a spinner. The risk of a ball hitting the face is always around, especially while playing horizontal bat shots like the sweep and pull.”
In a Vijay Hazare trophy match last month, umpire Paschim Pathak officiated wearing a helmet. He had watched Aussie umpire John Ward get hit in a Ranji game, and rightly decided to take no chances. And John Ward should be saluted for calling for a helmet in Canberra on Wednesday during the fourth ODI between India and Australia. Once hit, always shy - and right so. Umpire Ward might just set the trend in international cricket.
While the boards of other countries are engaged in collaborative research into the hunt for the perfect helmet, in India a helmet is still an option. This article is an appeal from a former player to the BCCI : make helmets mandatory for all batters at all times. At least for minors under -18, who aren’t considered old enough to make important decisions themselves, there should be no two ways about it. That being said, former India cricketer Amey Khurasia, now chief coach with the MPCA added this, “If it should be mandatory for juniors, it should apply to the seniors as well. This isn’t a question of maturity, it’s a question of protecting a player’s life. In such cases, the rules should be same for all age groups.”
Should the BCCI go ahead and make the use of helmets mandatory, many are likely to find such a move a nuisance, just like so many in our country oppose helmets on motorcycles. But in this case, as the caretaker of cricket in this country, the BCCI must make decisions that might upset some, for the good of the many.
It might save the next Humaira Kazi from a fractured skull. It might even save the life of the next Raman Lamba. Surely, that is reason enough.
The writer is a former women's international cricketer and represented India in 6 ODIs and 4 T20Is. Here's the link to her petition on Change.org, requesting BCCI to make helmets mandatory.