Danger: Batsmen at play
As we all secretly know, the internet is nothing if not a toxic waste dump for snatches of video footage that contribute precisely nought to the sum total of human knowledge.
But occasionally, tucked amid the asinine camera rolls of cats playing pianos, drunk men chowing down on incendiary chillies, and yet another duplicate set of highlights from the never-ending IPL, there emerges Zapruder-esque footage that not only tells us how far civilisation has progressed but also succinctly poses some timely questions about where we are bound.
Try browsing an online video repository using the search terms "Michael Holding" and "Brian Close" and then devoting three or four minutes of your day to the results.
The fact that this absurdly one-sided contest between ball and batsman comes within several hairs' breadths of being a snuff movie is chilling enough. The notion that it was captured less than 40 years ago - well after personal safety awareness campaigns had made the fitting and wearing of motor- vehicle seatbelts compulsory in enlightened societies - is simply mind-boggling.
It shows Close, hewn from Yorkshire granite, facing up time and again to a murderous onslaught of head-seeking missiles launched at roughly 100mph from 22 yards. Shielding him from life-threatening injury and permanent disfigurement is a thin wooden bat, a flimsy pair of padded mittens, leg protectors fashioned from bamboo and canvas, and a small adhesive strip on his left elbow. As well as a set of sturdy English cotton creams.
If he's wearing a thigh pad, it's in the guise of a neatly folded handkerchief in his right front pocket. No forearm guard. Or chest padding. Not even so much as a cloth cap to protect the balding scalp that is so clearly in Holding's crosshairs. He may as well be manacled to the stumps by a leg iron. It's an almost modern derivation of bear-baiting.
However, as you grimace and occasionally recoil from the savagery - with Holding pushing off the Old Trafford hoardings, West Indies wicketkeeper Deryck Murray almost lifted from his feet in arresting each grenade, and members of the slips cordon ducking for safety despite being twice as far from danger as the hapless batsman - fear for, and bewildered admiration of, Close crystallises into something else.
It becomes brutally apparent why, within a year or two of this deadly contest within the infamous "make them grovel" series, batsmen had begun barricading themselves inside rudimentary body armour. Not to steal the competitive advantage that comes with being able to prop on to the front foot with impunity or swat cross-batted at the short stuff, safe in the knowledge it's more likely to yield a top-edged six than a dozen stitches above the eye. But simply to stand a better-than-even-money chance of making it home alive to loved ones at the day's end.
Batsmen needed to be fitted with safety equipment not only to prevent them becoming roadkill, but also to retain the integrity of the battle between bowler and batsman. As heroically heartwarming as Close's 20 in almost three hours of the final innings of that third Test unquestionably stands, it was clearly unlikely to bring anyone other than sadists and aspiring paramedics through the turnstiles.
A quick churn through the aforementioned IPL highlights should, therefore, alert us to the fact that cricket now faces a similar occupational health-and-safety conundrum as it did in the face of West Indies' fast-bowling barrage of the 1970s and '80s. Although the predator has now become the prey.
The ubiquity of lightweight, custom-made protective apparatus has rendered batsmen not just unbreakable but virtually invincible. Emboldened by their bulletproof rib guards and Kevlar boxes, they launch themselves at bowling with the same cold-eyed intent that Holding levelled at his quarry in that 1976 shootout.
Armed with bats fashioned from 100% sweet spot, over-sprung handles, and edges only marginally narrower than Close's obsolete blade, they flay good-length deliveries back down the ground with a ferocity never before seen. Which means the individuals now most at risk of serious physical harm, and even potential death, given their utter lack of protective safeguards, are bowlers. Or umpires.
It's only a matter of time before some hapless seamer, head bent forward in his follow-through, having striven to land the requisite dot ball in the blockhole, looks up barely in time to realise he has under-pitched by half a metre and the batsman has cleared his front leg and swung the equivalent of a fairway wood to meet the ball on the rise. And that same ball is indeed rifling at warp speed towards the bowler's forehead. Should he instinctively turn his head, it will find his temple. At least Close was upright, balanced, armed (albeit notionally) and prepared for the likely points of attack his foe was targeting.
Alarmist? Undoubtedly. Fanciful? No.
During the Australian team's 2005 Test tour of New Zealand a teenage net bowler employed by the tourists in Auckland was taken from training in an ambulance after suffering this very fate. Fortunately Damien Martyn's Exocet straight drive inflicted damage no more permanent than the neat outline of a six-stitcher across the lad's forehead.
Clearly it would be impractical to kit out bowlers in protective helmets, chest guards and pads. Perhaps a splintered shin bone or a couple of shattered ribs might even help redress the historic injury toll in batsmen's favour. Then again, the active role of bowlers in 20-over cricket has dwindled to the point they have become almost incidental.
So perhaps the answer, in the interests of workplace safety, is to do away with them altogether.
Simply replace them with bowling machines that can be set to send down one of six or so pre-programmed deliveries by the fielding team's resident bowling tactician.
This device could be wheeled into place at the beginning of each over, and operated from behind the safety of reinforced Perspex. Which could also be used to shield the officiating umpire. Unless he or she has already been replaced by a video camera mounted on a hat stand. Which, if nothing else, will improve the quality and perspective of the footage that future generations might stumble across when clicking through the game's evolution.