What's the right age to start wearing helmets?
My recent piece about the prohibitive cost (for me) of playing junior representative cricket in Australia elicited a dozen emails from strangers and friends. Their feedback has prompted me to compose this follow-up piece, seated in the departure lounge of Harare airport, having stopped en route to watch some pretty decent schoolboy cricket on the way to the airport.
The thing that struck me immediately about what little I've seen of Zimbabwe's young cricketers was the integrity and purity of their batting techniques, strikingly similar to boys of the same age that I've watched in the maidans of Mumbai and the laneways of Colombo. No doubt the best Australian kids, not playing impromptu games in the streets or parks but in structured net sessions, would be as good as the best anywhere in the world but there's precious little spontaneous backyard stuff in Australia these days.
Something else that stood out was the fact that most of the boys in Zimbabwe who I watched this morning were batting in caps, helmets nowhere to be seen. That was a sight to warm the cockles of my heart. I've long held the view, perhaps mistakenly, that the compulsory wearing of helmets by children as young as eight can be one of the most limiting factors in their development.
In all the time that I've been watching this age group, the chances of them being sconed on the head by a bouncing ball has appeared remote, so the compulsory helmet rule is a default legal position that has resulted in a safer environment perhaps, but at the expense of technique and development. Most kids this age are in more danger of being smothered by over-protective parents than injured by a cricket ball - unless it happens to ricochet off a side net from a wayward delivery.
The wearing of helmets is a personal choice, of course; I respect any parent's right to protect their child if they feel nervous about their safety. Most junior cricket clubs in Australia have made it obligatory, unless the parent signs a special waiver. So 95% of young cricketers are starting their batting learning cycle with a heavy helmet on their heads, partially obscuring their vision and regularly affecting their balance at the crease, the weight of the head tending to make them fall over, with both eyes at different heights. Most of these cricketers will probably never bat without a helmet. If they are wearing it 100% of the time now and rarely playing any other form of cricket except in the nets or in matches, they may never know the freedom of batting in cap or sunhat.
Both my sons bat without helmets, at eight and ten years old respectively. They are certainly not going to get bounced at this age, so their biggest danger is from a top edge or a slow, loopy full toss. If they miss that sort of ball and cop one in the noggin at that pace, it might cause some damage, but I doubt the ramifications will be too serious. They'll soon learn to make contact with the ball and sweep or pull properly without top-edging it.
When we play cricket at home, I regularly hurl thunderbolts at them (with a soft ball), and they are already learning to duck or sway out of the way. We've experimented with helmets and almost every single time they have been hit on the head when wearing one. Their feet just stop moving and they stand like statues, seemingly slower to react when weighed down (or visually impaired) by the helmet. Perhaps it's just a matter of them getting used to it.
I may well experience a change in attitude as I watch my sons get older, but for the moment I have yet to see any reason why the compulsory helmet rule is beneficial to their development, notwithstanding the legal issues that are clearly a part of junior sport these days.
From what I've seen these last few years, coaches might be better off teaching better footwork, and the virtues of keeping the eyes on the ball and of not over-committing to the front foot, than simply insisting on a helmet and then watching youngsters perfect the hoick over square leg. That will change as they get older and bowlers can deliberately bowl short with intent, but at younger ages, bowlers simply do not have the skill or pace to bowl bumpers. Young batsmen don't really know how to sweep, so the risk of them top-edging balls into their faces is negligible too.
At district/regional levels, the coaches insist on the helmet as a matter of policy, guided no doubt by good intentions. They have no wish to see anyone under their care injured, and I respect their duty-of-care mindset. I do not have the time, skill or patience to volunteer to coach at this age, so their sacrifices are not to be scoffed at. My son has now had to quickly get used to wearing a helmet, which negatively affects his batting, but he'll soon get used to it, I'm sure. In the meantime, when he returns to regular club cricket (Under-11s), he will continue to bat in a cap. He remains the exception in Brisbane; not so in Harare from what I've seen this morning.
I wonder what is happening in the breeding grounds of cricket elsewhere in the world, especially in the subcontinent. Are kids as young as eight wearing helmets as a matter of course in hard-ball cricket, without even contemplating the alternative? Is anyone else seeing what I'm seeing - over-balancing and cockeyed stances, combined with a front-foot lunge to virtually every ball? When the occasional dangerous ball comes their way, many of these kids just turn their heads and cop it in the back of the helmet (or neck or shoulder). It's hard to then figure out if mum or child is screaming louder! These are the same mums who put on all the protective gear for their kids at age ten, in their fourth season of cricket. I suppose if these kids haven't yet learned to do up Velcro pads at this age, they have no chance of watching a short ball and weaving out of the way.
From my distant memories of my own childhood days on uneven laneways and cement driveways, albeit with a soft ball, I can barely recall anyone being hit on the head, despite some fierce bowling off a pitch length that was invariably determined by the dimensions of the garden, where the car was parked, and where mum's precious pot plants were situated.
For myself, and now my sons, I maintain that young cricketers don't need helmets at this age. But that is an attitude from a bygone age. I stand alone, a dinosaur caught in a time warp. There is a certain charm in that, much like Harare's airport today. And the young lads in the suburbs, batting diligently in the nets with broad sunhats shielding them from a fierce sun. It's like going back in time; Africa can still do that to you.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane