The recent death of Phillip Hughes after he was hit by a short-pitched delivery in a local Sheffield Shield game in Sydney, Australia signifies the dangers of the modern game of cricket and the need for some changes to reduce the risks of injuries.
Hughes was hit on the back of the head in an area unprotected by his helmet. His death was an accident and the bowler Sean Abbott was in no way to blame.
Cricket is traditionally known as the gentleman’s game and is supposed to embody all that is fair and just in sport. However the commercialization of the game in the 1970’s replaced sportsmanship with the principle of ‘win at all costs’. This precipitated greater reliance on fast bowling as this was the most effective way of satisfying the desire to win which in turn increased the dangers to batsmen.
The first major incident of dangerous short-pitched bowling was the 1932/33 Ashes tour of Australia (known as the Bodyline series). English fast bowlers Larwood and Voce, in order to counter the extraordinary skill of the great Australian batsman Don Bradman, deployed a tactic of bowling at his body on the leg side in order to get a deflection and have him caught by several fielders placed behind square leg.
This tactic proved effective but was contrary to the gentlemanly traditions of the game and over the next two decades the tactic was outlawed by the laws of cricket.
Although it was banned, Bodyline left an ugly legacy. Since then there have been numerous instances of injuries resulting from short-pitched bowling. For example, in 1962 Indian captain Nari Contractor’s international career was ended after being hit by a rising ball from Charlie Griffith in Barbados. English batsman Andy Lloyd never played again after being hit by a short-pitched ball from Malcolm Marshall in 1984 at Edgbaston and England’s Alex Tudor was struck by a Brett Lee delivery in Perth 2002 which also ended his career.
THE UGLY SIDE OF CRICKET
With the influx of big money into cricket in the 1970’s winning became of paramount importance and teams increasingly made use of fast intimidatory bowling as this was very effective in overcoming opponents. This tactic was also exciting and was seen as good for the game since it made cricket (especially one day cricket) more attractive. Teams with the most firepower always won and drew the largest crowds.
A cricket ball consists of cork covered by leather and is hard and solid. As we saw in the case of Phillip Hughes’ death it is capable of inflicting serious injury if it hits a batsman in an unprotected area.
Fast bowlers bowl at speeds of 90 to 100 mph. They are strong cricketers and what they bowl among other unpleasant things is a delivery called the ‘bouncer’. They produce this by banging the ball into the middle of the pitch with all the strength they can muster so that it rears up to chest or head height as it reaches the batsman. The purpose of it is to drive fear into the mind of the batsman so that he is convinced that, all things considered, he is better off in seeking the safety of the pavilion. You don’t bowl at the stumps but aim at scalps.
In the mid 1970’s the most famous pair of practitioners of fast bowling violence were Australians Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee. In two consecutive winters they humiliated England and the West Indies and propelled Australia to the pinnacle of world cricket. At home they bowled on wickets specially prepared for them, in front of crowds that yelled “kill, kill, kill” and were aided by native umpires that gave visiting batsmen little protection.
After their 5-1 thrashing to Australia in 1975/76 the West Indies quickly learned the lesson that it was fast bowlers that won matches. They learned their lesson well. They tweaked the tactic and henceforth deployed an all pace bowling attack working in tandem with each other with the idea that incessant pace would wear down batsmen and make it more difficult to protect not only their wickets but also their personal safety. This new tactic led to the West Indies’ domination of cricket for nearly two decades.
Bowling that threatens the body has become an accepted part of the struggle between bat and ball in modern cricket.
It is unfortunate that Phillip Hughes paid the ultimate price for playing the game he loved. To avoid a repetition of this tragedy new changes have to be made to provide more safety for batsmen:
First, young players need to learn how to evade or play short-pitched bowling. Because of the prevalence of one day cricket there is too much front-foot play and no knowledge of how to play faster bowlers off the back-foot or how to duck or sway to avoid a ball (ABConline – Phillip Hughes injury: Attacking focus and lack of evasive techniques putting younger cricketers at risk of injury; by Rene Ferdinands, November 26, 2014).
Second, cricket helmets are not foolproof and their design needs to be altered to provide more protection for unprotected areas such as the back of the head so as to avoid a repetition of the Hughes tragedy.
Third, umpires need to make more use of their powers and enforce the laws of the game more strictly especially in stopping the overuse of bouncers.
Contrary to what some people suggest there is no need to change the rules and outlaw short-pitched bowling. Some amount of fear needs to be maintained as a part of the game but hopefully the price to keep it will not be too high.
Victor A. Dixon
December 2, 2014