Accidents always arrive unannounced. The nasty injury of Steve Smith when he was hit on the neck by the English pacer Jofra Archer reminded the fatal blow of Australian batsman Philip Hughes. While the helmet manufacturer had reportedly said that Hughes was not wearing the (then) latest version which was far more protective, the 30-year old Smith, batting without armguard, was first struck on the forearm by Archer, who bowled consistently over 140 kmph. Smith was also not wearing the attachment to the helmet that protects the neck, now preferred by many players. It’s not mandatory until now, perhaps it may become a requisite soon.
Hughes’ death rocked nations, borders and cultures. Freakish though, reports had suggested that the hit “millimetres either side could have saved him with a mere concussion”. This is where Smith is extremely lucky to get away with a mere concussion. The leather ball, weighing 160 grams, was travelling at 135 kmph when it hit Hughes, whereas the Archer delivery was 147.5 kmph. Some biomechanical experts opine that the impact is “similar to being hit by a bullet”.
Should bouncers be banned?
The debate which kickstarted, following the death of Hughes, makes rounds whenever you see serious on-field injuries. There have been cries for the bouncer to be outlawed. Bouncers are used tactically to drive the batsman back on to his back foot if he has been freely playing his front foot shots. To this end, they are nearly directed at the bodyline, which is not “illegal” provided the ball bounces on the pitch. Aiming the batsman’s head without bouncing on the pitch is “beamer”, which is lethal and illegal
The essence of good batsmanship is the ability to stroke and defend, both off the front foot and the back foot. Banning the ‘bouncer’ would produce more kids and less cricketers. Any attempt to redefine the “bouncer” would be a major regression to the game, which is already pro-batsman (with field restrictions, power plays, limits on number of bouncers in an over, high quality bats…) than it used to be.
Batsmen in the pre-helmet days relied on agility and a good eye. All glory to those stalwarts like Don Bradman, Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers, G R Vishwanath… Same delivery. Some defend. Some hit boundaries. Some gets out. Some injured. In some sports, dire risk is a constant companion. A single punch in Boxing at the wrong place can kill. In F1, a miscalculation can decimate in seconds.
Australian duo, Dennis Lille and Jeff Thomson, and the Caribbean pacemen of the Seventies and the Eighties bowled all day with barely anyone, not even the umpire, took any objection. Viv Richards was a rare exception, who never wore helmet even against the likes of Lillee and Thomson. While he trusted his life to his eyesight and nerves, Don Bradman said it was “a wonder more batsmen were not injured seriously”.
Australia and South Africa take great pride in the bouncy nature of their wickets. This meant that a ball normally pitched quite short anywhere else in the world to come up to the head height can be pitched short of a length on most Aussie/South African pitches. It’s time some parameters are in place regarding the hardness of the pitch. It goes the other way in India with the ball hardly going over ankle height!
The game should go on
The game of cricket tests everything of a batsman, bouncer inclusive, only then the comprehensive ability is ascertained.
A fast bowler would probably say that banning bouncers is akin to banning cover-drives. It is part of the game. In cricket, fielders are also prone to serious risk. Raman Lamba, Mark Boucher, Saba Karim instantly comes to mind. What one would question though is the quality of the pitches, helmet designs, player’s behavioural pattern (like sledging, verbal intimidation…). Sledging that involves threats such as advising an opponent that he is “about to get a broken arm” should be outlawed, as it sends a wrong message to youngsters that it is okay to break some one’s arm in the name of sport.
In the modern version of the game, the batsman reverse-sweeps, scoop-hits and can miss and get gravely injured. The game is played across the length and breadth of the country in grounds and gullies, with inferior gears, poor pitches and no first-aid kits, and one can, even without “bouncers”, get hurt.
A tiger without ferocity, a cobra lacking venom, and a fast-bowler sans bouncer is not in line with established nature. Improving the headgear and better coaching on how to negotiate a climbing delivery are a more logical response to the on-field injuries. The cricketing fraternity should delete the dilemma of a fast bowler.
(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)