There is a very real danger of a knee-jerk health and safety reaction to the tragic death of the Australian batsman Phil Hughes emasculating cricket. Hughes was hit on the back of the neck trying to hook when playing for South Australia against New South Wales. He collapsed unconscious on the field and died two days later after suffering a bleed into the brain caused by the blow compressing an artery feeding the brain.
Hughes was incredibly unlucky because death resulting from being hit by a cricket ball is very rare indeed. The last cricketer to die after being hit whilst playing first class cricket in England was George Summers in 1870, and he probably died unnecessarily because he refused to follow medical advice to rest after the blow. (Summers died four days after being hit on the head).
In the 151 years since overarm bowling was legitimised in 1863 only one death in first class cricket in England occurred. For around 120 years of that time helmets were not in use – helmets came into general use around 1980. That tells its own story: the risk of death from being hit by a cricket ball when batting is vanishingly small.
Before helmets arrived good batsmen were adept at getting out of the way or proficient at hooking and pulling the fast short ball. In addition quick bowlers generally did not bounce tailenders. The consequence was very few batsmen were hit on the head.
I began watching first class cricket in the late 1950s and between then and the wholesale use of helmets from around 1980 I watched a great deal of first class cricket and can only remember two players being hit on the head in a quarter of a century’s watching. The first occasion involved the Middlesex allrounder Don Bennett of all people hitting Jim Parks jnr with a ball which lifted unexpectedly from just short of a length and caught him flush on the jaw knocking him out. He went flat on his back but was up and batting again within ten minutes .
The second instance was more notable: Dennis Amiss was hit on the head by Michael Holding when playing for the MCC against the 1976 West Indies tourists. I was more or less in line with the pitch when he was hit and I can vouch for the fact that it was entirely Amiss’ fault because he walked into the ball which would have sailed harmlessly past or over the offstump if he had stayed still. Nonetheless, despite the blow being entirely Amiss’ fault, it was Holding hitting Amiss (who had been traumatised by Lillee and Thomson in the previous winter’s Ashes series) that led to the adoption of the helmet. Amiss was the first to wear one consistently when he adopted a rudimentary type adapted from those worn by motorcyclists during the Packer “World Series” games in 1978. By the early 1980s the use of the helmet was becoming commonplace.
Helmets make batsmen reckless because they think themselves safe from being seriously injured. This recklessness is also fed by other new or improved protective equipment such as bumper bras, arm guards and huge thigh pads covering both thighs. I also suspect that even the lightest modern helmets constrain a batsman’s movement and peripheral sight while the extensive modern padding and the heavy weight modern bat significantly restricts mobility. The upshot is every Tom, Dick and Harry plays the hook and the pull because of misplaced confidence generated by the helmets and other protective equipment. Players, including top order batsmen, are now frequently hit on the head. The tragic death of Phil Hughes was an accident just waiting to happen.
If Hughes had grown up without helmets, arm guards, bumper bras and thigh pads on both legs , he would have learnt to both get out of the way of the short stuff and either become proficient hooker like Norman O’Neill or Colin Cowdrey or cut out the shot as did, for example, John Edrich and Bobby Simpson. In all probability he would be alive now.
The problem with most first class batsmen today is they have poor techniques and increasingly lack any patience. This makes them very vulnerable to getting hit. The plain truth about Phil Hughes is that he was not competent against the bouncer. This had been shown clearly in several Ashes series when he was frequently bounced out. If people want to make cricket safer in future they should first begin to examine faulty techniques.
Take a single technical issue: the stance. It is rare these days to see a batsman under the age of 25 who does not adopt the bat waving baseball stance. That must unbalance the player and commit them to spending precious milliseconds adjusting their position to play the ball.
Then there is the bat up lunge forward stance adopted by amongst others Moeen Ali. It is no mystery that he cannot play the short ball comfortably. He puts most of his weight on the front foot when he adopts his stance and cannot get back quickly enough to deal with the fast short ball.
The irony of batsmen being hit these days is that the modern batsman have life so much easier than it was for those who played without decent protective equipment, against plenty of fast bowling, on uncovered pitches with a wide variety of quality spin bowlers to face. Today first class cricket is played on pitches giving little help to the bowlers , with few quality spinners and scarcely a fast bowler worthy of the name in world cricket.
Tragic as Phil Hughes’ death was the facts say there is no need to panic. The risk of death or permanent serious disablement is minute in the case of cricket. Imposing rules such as no bouncers or developing helmets and other equipment so stiflingly protective that the physical fear factor is removed from the equation would emasculate it. Sport needs an element of danger in it to have meaning. Let us keep it in the game of cricket.