A short history of helmets: For a game that can seriously maim, cricket introduced protection for the head at a belated stage

  • Austin Coutinho
  • April 16th, 2020
  • 10:17:27 IST

The cricket ball weighs 160 grams. When propelled at around 150 kilometres per hour, it can kill. Considering this, when you look back at the 19th and 20th centuries, it is surprising that the game of cricket has seen very few fatalities, apart from a small number of very grievous injuries.

Last week, in a podcast, Sir Vivian Richards told Shane Watson that he never wore a helmet while facing the fiercest of fast bowlers because he was passionate about cricket. He also said that he was prepared to lay down his life while playing the game.

Helmets, in fact, came into fashion in international cricket only in the 1980s. Before that, batting icons like Sir Donald Bradman, George Headley, Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammod, Sir Garfield Sobers and hundreds of other batsmen never wore protective headgear. And trust me, these legends — and the ones before them — had to face some fearsome pace bowlers too. The likes of Fred Spofforth, Ernie Jones, Harold Larwood, Ray Lindwall, Frank Tyson, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and the fearsome West Indies pace bowlers of the 1970s and '80s weren’t mere trundlers.

India’s legendary opener Sunil Gavaskar, too, never wore a helmet throughout his international career that lasted 16 years (1971 to 1987). Once after being hit on the head by Malcolm Marshall, he resorted to using an eggshell-shaped skull cap, but gave it up after a few innings. When he was asked why he didn’t wear helmets, the Li’l Master had said, tongue-in-cheek, “There was nothing up there that was worth protecting!”

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Mike Brearley, perhaps cricket’s brainiest skipper who wasn’t a Test-class batsman by any standards, also wore a lighter version of the skull-cap to protect himself from the demon bowlers of his time.

In cricket, helmets can most often prevent serious injury, but they aren’t foolproof protection. Look what happened to Australia’s Philip Hughes: The talented left-handed batsman from New South Wales was hit on the neck by a bouncer in a Sheffield Shield match on 25 November, 2014. Three days later, after being put into an induced coma, he died. The injury had apparently caused a vertebral dissection just under his helmet. Now, after that accident, helmets have an additional guard at the rear. Experts believe that the new guard only provides psychological respite to the batsman.

One batsman who hovered between life and death, after being hit on the head, was former India skipper Nari Contractor. Ducking into a short ball from Charlie Griffith on India’s 1962 tour of the Caribbean Isles, Contractor had a fractured skull and is said to have recovered with help from Frank Worrell and his teammates, expert doctors and, of course, by sheer grit. Contractor, 86, is still with us and healthy.

Despite the lack of proper protective gear in cricket in the 1800s and a major part of the 20th century, the game has seen very few fatal accidents. George Summers, a first-class English cricketer, died in 1870 after being struck on the head by a ball. Fred Randon Sr, another first-class cricketer, died in 1883 following a head injury in 1881. Abdul Aziz (1959), a Pakistani batsman, and Raman Lamba (1998), the India batsman, too, succumbed to head injuries received during matches. In 2013, Darryn Randall, a South African cricketer, received a smack on the head and died.

Jones, the unsophisticated fast bowler of the 1800s, is said to have once sent a ripper, splitting Dr WG Grace’s beard into two. “Sorry Doc, she slipped,” the bowler is said to have told the legendary batsman. That must have hurt the good doctor’s ego. There have, however, been several grievous physical injuries that batsmen have sustained over the last hundred-odd years. Bill Wooodfull was hit over the heart and Bert Oldfield had a broken skull after being hit by Larwood in the bodyline series. Rick McCosker’s jaw was busted in the 1977 Centenary Test at MCG and Anil Kumble’s jaw was broken by a Merv Dillon bouncer in a 2002 Test at Antigua.

Who can forget Mike Gatting’s nose being smashed by a Marshall bouncer in 1986? It is said that pieces of bone were found embedded in the ball’s leather after that delivery. Sanjay Manjrekar was hit on the eye by a Winston Benjamin short ball in 1987, and then Sachin Tendulkar, trying to find his bearings in international cricket at 16, was hit by a Waqar Younis snorter that had him bleeding on the pitch. Five years ago, Stuart Broad was hit on the nose by a Varun Aaron bouncer. Though the wound is no longer visible, the mental scars can still be seen when Broad bats.

That picture of 45-year-old Brian Close in the dressing room, in 1975, with black and blue marks on his torso, still send shivers down the spines of cricket fans. He had been recalled by the England selectors to blunt the pace and intimidation of Caribbean bowlers like Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel in that series. In his final Test, at Old Trafford, he was subjected to a brutal display of intimidation and he bravely fought them off for 160 minutes, scoring 20 runs. Anshuman Gaekwad showed a similar sort of courage against the West Indies pacemen at Sabina Park a year later. Hit repeatedly on his knuckles and batting with a broken rib, Gaekwad fought on bravely despite being hit on the head. Of course, the man who took the maximum number of hits on the head – and still kept coming back – was Mohinder Amarnath. On his father Lala Amarnath’s advice, he even wore a ‘sola topee’ while batting, to avoid head injuries.

There were no concussion substitutes then; else brave-hearts like Close, Gaekwad and Amarnath would have had the opportunity to sit out and bide time till they recovered from their trauma after each thump on the head.

It is said that Amarnath Sr used to wear sola topees, which were basically pith helmets to keep off the heat in tropical conditions, while batting in the 1940s. However, the first person to really wear head protection in Tests, in 1933, was Patsy Hendren. His wife, concerned about his safety, had designed for him a three-peaked hat with rubber padding. In 1977, Dennis Amiss used a bikers’ helmet – visor and all – to protect himself in World Series Cricket matches.

A joke making the rounds in cricket circles is of the ‘box’ being invented in 1874 and the helmet a hundred years later.

‘King’ Richards never really needed a helmet. With him at the crease, it was the bowler who was always on the defensive. In one county game, England’s quickest bowler Greg Thomas was bowling to him and making the ball whizz past the bat. After a few missed deliveries, Thomas walked up to Richards and said, “It is red, it’s round. Now hit it if you can!” Richards smacked the next ball out of the ground. Walking towards the bowler with his usual swag, the batsman said, “You know how it looks. Now go fetch it.”

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.

Updated Date: April 16, 2020 10:17:27 IST

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