January 5, 2015

In defence of the bouncer

The delivery is essential to the game, but we need to guard against its abuse

The bouncer gives the bowler a way to test a batsman that no other delivery does © Getty Images

Phillip Joel Hughes was hit by a bouncer during a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and New South Wales on November 25, 2014. Two days later, he died. His death has brought on questions about the legitimacy of the bouncer in cricket. Mishaps are often a matter of millimetres - as it was for Hughes, unfortunately.

Pranay Sanklecha has argued that a moral question is in play when it comes to the bouncer. He is not persuaded by the standard arguments in favor of the delivery. These, he writes, are as follows:

"[…] it's thrilling (which Test cricket needs to stay alive), it maintains the balance between bat and ball, it's a test of courage and thereby reveals character (men from boys and all that), it is part of the tradition of the game."

Sanklecha says we accept the tiny risk of very great harm in some activities (flying, driving) because we benefit from those activities - and those risks cannot be eliminated. He sees no compelling argument that justifies the tiny risk of very great harm the bouncer poses.

Mukul Kesavan cautions against dismissing arguments for getting rid of the bouncer too hastily. Through a brief history of how we (the fans) have reacted to short-pitched bowling, he suggests that Hughes' death marks a point of no return, an end of innocence. In the world before Phillip Hughes, we didn't know that a good-quality batsman could be killed by a bouncer. Now we do. I am more persuaded by Kesavan's historical argument than I am by Sanklecha's moral one.

It is essential to question the morality of the bouncer. Indeed, it is essential to question the morality of a sport that involves flinging a hard ball as fast as possible and hitting it even harder very close to human beings. It is essential to question the morality of a sport that relies so deeply on the nature of its playing surface, and celebrates the idea that at some point that surface gets damaged, causing a deadly speeding missile to behave unpredictably. It is important to question the morality of a sport that permits fielding positions so close to the bat that they give a fielder no chance to evade a well-struck ball. It is important to question the morality of a sport in which a batsman taking a ball on the body, possibly fracturing a rib, and not flinching is celebrated as a sign of toughness - though we know that pain is a warning sign from the body designed to protect from future damage. Thankfully players call for help more often than not if they are hurt.

There is no evidence that the bouncer produces more serious injury in cricket than any of the other ways in which players can be damaged by a cricket ball. Unlike wicketkeepers or short-leg fielders, batsmen are protected better for two reasons. First, they have a bat. Second, they have longer to react than a keeper standing up to the stumps, or a short-leg fielder facing a hard hit. If the bouncer is eliminated because it is dangerous, then it follows that the close-in fielder, the dustbowl and the keeper standing up to the stumps must be eliminated too. A wicketkeeper losing an eye for the rest of his life is sufficiently serious to be considered "very great harm". In any event, the harm lies in a person getting hit by a hard ball in the wrong place at sufficiently high speed. Batsmen hit the ball hard to try and spread the field. Is there any less intention there than there is in the bowling of the bouncer?

Is it reasonable to say that the bouncer is not essential to the game, but the short-leg fielder or the wicketkeeper standing up to the stumps are?

What of the very tiny risk? The bouncer has to be the perfect length, the perfect speed, the perfect height and the perfect line. If you don't believe me, position a bull's eye at a distance of about 20 yards, about six feet off the ground, and try and aim at it on the bounce. Do this without a run-up, with any ball of your choice. Then try to do the same while bowling. Then keep in mind that bowlers not only have to be able to bowl the bouncer on a wicket whose behaviour (how much carry it offers, how much pace it offers) they know, but they have to be able to adjust it perfectly on different pitches in different countries. Then, to all these variables, add the skill of the batsmen to whom bouncers are bowled.

Intimidatory bowling is prohibited under the law. Umpires can, and have, stopped a bowler from bowling if the bowling was intimidatory - that is, concerned not with dismissal but with inflicting physical injury. Umpires also prevent fast bowling in poor light. On one occasion, an umpire stopped play for a bit simply because the glare of the sun was being reflected off a part of the ground to the batting end. They often are criticised for doing so, but umpires are cautious precisely because even experts can get into trouble against the bouncer in poor light. The game itself is well aware of the damage a hard cricket ball can do.

Is it reasonable to say that the bouncer is not essential to the game, but the short-leg fielder or the wicketkeeper standing up to the stumps are? Is it even true that the bouncer is not uniquely capable of creating tactical benefits? Top-quality batsmen have excellent footwork, which is second nature to them. The bouncer is the one delivery that can disrupt that footwork. The knowledge (or timely evidence) that a bowler can deliver a bouncer is often enough to delay a batsman's forward movement by a crucial fraction of a second. This delay can cause the batsman to drive without transferring his weight forward in time, resulting either in an edge or in an uppish drive. As a tactic, the bouncer is essential and therefore has become a tradition.

What we can and must do is come down hard when the bouncer is abused in the ecosystem of contemporary cricket. It was abused in the Boxing Day Test in 2013. Brett Lee, one of the fastest bowlers in the early 21st century, delivered an over to Piers Morgan. At hand were two former Test captains, Mark Taylor of Australia, and Michael Vaughan of England, and Shane Warne. Also at hand was Mark Nicholas, a successful first-class player and captain who is now a broadcaster. The event was advertised as tea-time entertainment.

Lee bowled from 18 yards, and kept following Morgan, who was far out of his depth. There has been no reckoning to this day for this television event. All parties continue to have jobs in cricket broadcasting. In my view, given their unapologetic participation in the event, none of them should be in charge of interpreting and explaining the game to viewers in any professional capacity for the foreseeable future. Nor should the producer responsible for that broadcast or the lawyers who permitted it. Perhaps fans should mute their television sets when any of these individuals are on and let broadcasters know that they are doing so.

It is true that the bouncer can cause terrible accidents. But it is far from alone in the game in its potential to cause these accidents. It is also undeniable tactically essential to the game. That's why it is part of cricket's tradition. Perhaps our innocence about the damage a hard cricket ball can do has been wishful thinking. The authorities themselves have never been quite so naive. Some of us enjoy the sight of batsmen squirming under the onslaught. Had there not been numerically substantial fascination with the idea of an Englishman getting hit by an Australian with a cricket ball, would the macabre tea-time show have occurred? The commentariat has a duty to never discount the seriousness of the bouncer. It is a duty that has been sacrificed from time to time in the game at the altar of nationalism or, more frequently, show business. Perhaps the lesson from Hughes' passing is best learnt by us who comment on the game, and not by the game itself.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here