October 19, 2016

We need to talk about bouncers

What we needed from the Phillip Hughes inquest was a serious discussion on how to make our game, where 90mph bowlers are now the norm, safer
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The number of bouncers bowled at pace will keep increasing and that's the conversation we need to be having © AFP

The coroner's inquest into the death of Phillip Hughes should have been an opportunity for cricket to learn from its most public tragedy and ensure that the game was safer from now on. But because of the extreme hurt felt by the Hughes family, and the players feeling like they were on trial, what transpired did not benefit cricket or the family.

There is no doubt that the New South Wales team was trying to bounce Hughes out when he was struck fatally. There is little doubt, with some of the players involved, that harsh words would have been said.

Whether what Dougie Bollinger allegedly said was, "I am going to kill you", to Hughes or not really shouldn't matter. Bollinger is a joke figure, Australian cricket's doofus clown prince, and he is a former team-mate of Hughes'. No one in Australian cricket takes anything he says seriously. And while intent and words matter, what matters most is the ball that ultimately struck Hughes. That is the villain; that was the killer.

Hughes wasn't the last player to be subjected to a barrage of them, and that is what the inquest should have been about: how to make facing a bouncer as safe as we can make it.

There was talk in the immediate aftermath of banning the bouncer. It was an extreme reaction to an extreme situation. It was never truly taken seriously, and as the days turned into weeks after Hughes' death, they got quieter and quieter. Like many things in cricket, once the heat of the moment was gone, there was no intellectual conversation about the bouncer. We just went back to business as usual.

That was the mistake of cricket. Cricket as a business, as a sport, as a thing of love and beauty, has a responsibility to those who play it to take the bouncer conversation seriously.

Bowling is as quick as it has ever been.

Recently I've been involved in two conversations with respected cricket writers telling me bowling isn't any more rapid now than in the previous generations.

There might have been faster bowlers in the past, but there has never been a time with more fast bowlers

One argument was that bowling had always been fast; it had just never been properly measured before. That Fred Spofforth was quick, or Harold Larwood was quick. That explanation doesn't hold up when you think that overarm bowling only became popular in Spofforth's lifetime (even he started playing cricket as an underarm bowler). The original overarm techniques were actually side-arm, much like drunken versions of Lasith Malinga's action. So Spofforth's early tinkerings would have only been so quick.

The Larwood theory plays into the second conversation I had - about the old days, when players were amateur unlike today. These amateurs didn't worry about the next game, about resting themselves, about slowing down, and when their body felt right. They came in and bowled with all the pace they had. Part of the problem with that theory is that Larwood was a professional and played a lot of cricket. So were all the great West Indian bowlers. Many of them were overworked physically by bowling.

But really, the conversation was about the name that comes up every time people talk about fast bowling: Jeff Thomson.

Thommo was quick. Thommo would probably be quick now. And Thommo was so quick now that his balls travel through time and bowl out anyone who suggests bowlers are quicker now.

Whether it be Larwood, Trueman, Hall or Thommo, there is no doubt that bowlers from other eras have bowled quick. How quick, that is for drunken conversations with your uncle.

One man, with an incredible human catapult action, whose muscles seemed perfectly set up to hurl, might be the quickest bowler of all time. But not every bowler was like Thommo.

Everyone in the game, and not just helmet manufacturers, needs to look at better safety features for batsmen © Getty Images

In the 1979 speed bowling competition, Thommo was 6kph quicker than Michael Holding in second place. That was when Holding was in his prime and Thommo had started to slow down after injuring his shoulder. Thommo's quickest was 147.9kph. He averaged 142.3kph while Holding's fastest ball was slower than that. Thommo was the only bowler clocked at over 145kph (90mph) in that test. The fastest of Len Pascoe, one of those tested, clocked more than 15kph slower than Thommo. Richard Hadlee was slower.

And while the speed gun technology seems to have evolved like fast bowling itself, this is the only guide we have.

So Thommo wasn't like every bowler out there. He towered over the others in this test. And during this same era there were many other bowlers who were playing Test cricket as seamers - Sarfraz Nawaz, who shuffled in like an old man trying to get his shopping done, Max Walker, whose action seemed to strangle his own pace, and Madan Lal, who could have out run the odd delivery in his follow-through. New Zealand had an endless supply of medium-pace.

Those bowlers barely exist anymore. Even bowlers like Tim Southee, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jason Holder are far quicker than them. And all three of those bowlers, at times, have been said to be not quick enough. In fact, Southee and Bhuvneshwar have put on extra pace just to survive. There was a time when you needed to bowl 90mph to be seen to bowl quick. We're now getting to the point where you need to bowl 90mph to get picked.

There might have been faster bowlers in the past, but there has never been a time with more fast bowlers.

Allrounders used to be slow first-change bowlers like Walker. The allrounders who bowl these days are Chris Morris, Ben Stokes, Mitch Marsh, Andre Russell, Tim Bresnan and Sean Abbott. None of these guys are slow. At their top speeds, they are fast-medium. Stokes and Russell are quicker than that.

When the helmet was invented there were probably only a handful of bowlers who could bowl at 90mph. Now there are probably at least 50, and that number will soon be 100

The true evolution of fast bowling isn't the top speeds. Perhaps Thommo was the quickest, or maybe the fastest was from the Tait, Brett Lee and Akhtar era. But the true test of how much quicker bowling has become is how many people these days can bowl around 90mph.

England can pick from Steven Finn, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett, Ben Stokes, Jake Ball and Chris Woakes as their first-choice seamers. Woakes was seen as too slow when he started. This summer he was clocking over 90mph. And if you're batting in county cricket you could be facing Stuart Meaker, Tony Roland-Jones, Mark Footit, Tymal Mills, Boyd Rankin, Jamie Overton, Matt Coles, Kyle Abbott, Fidel Edwards or Tino Best.

There was a time when Australia scared the cricket world with two proper quick bowlers in Thommo and Lillee. After that, West Indies dominated cricket with four quick bowlers for two generations. Now England regularly take in four bowlers who are around 90mph and it's barely commented on. South Africa could easily do the same. Even India, for years the laughing stock of fast bowling talent, have Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowling very quick. The days of New Zealand's army of military medium is well and truly over.

Even first-class teams often have multiple fast bowlers in their XIs now. When the helmet was invented there were probably only a handful of bowlers who could bowl at 90mph. Now there are probably at least 50, and that number will soon be 100.

That is not even mentioning the left-armers. Until Wasim Akram there had been one left-arm quick bowler with more than 150 Test wickets. Now they are everywhere. And as England and South Africa showed when facing Mitchell Johnson, it's a whole different set of skills needed to try and survive a physical attack from a left-arm bowler at top-end pace.

This is the natural evolution of cricket. Not individual bowlers being express, but many players bowling fast. And like rugby is struggling with the fact that their players are bigger and faster now, cricket's struggle is going to be with the fact there have never been as many bouncers bowled at this pace as there are right now.

That will mean more chances occurring of what happened to Hughes. And that is what the discussion has to be about.

Can we stop the ball going through the grill of the helmet? Is the heart in danger from being hit at 90mph? Are there proper concussion guidelines in place? With batsmen brought up wearing helmets getting hit more often, is CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) going to be a problem in cricket? Are the medical procedures adequate at international and first-class games? Is there a way we can ever protect the throat? And are the new neck protectors going to save a batsman?

These are the questions that scientists, doctors, cricketers, the ICC and helmet manufacturers should be working on together. At the moment, it seems like the helmet makers are trying to catch up, and while they are doing a good job, there is only so much money in selling a cricket helmet. The real money and help should come from within the cricket industry itself.

Perhaps the coroner's inquest was not the perfect place to talk about protecting cricketers as there was so much emotion around it. But we must now have this conversation. Cricket should have had a safety summit to try to make the game safer. The game owes it to Phil Hughes and to every player who picks up a bat.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cyberstudent on October 27, 2016, 15:03 GMT

    make bouncers illegal, bowlers should be allowed to bowl only full tosses with predefined line, lengths and speeds. Small grounds and heavy bats weren't enough, ICC please make the game a little more easier for batsmen

  • GeorgeGM on October 26, 2016, 8:51 GMT

    Cricket is a dangerous game. The ball is hard, and if you get hit by a fast bowler, the damage can be anywhere from a bruise to a fatality. It's amazing there haven't been more deaths.

    The only way to make cricket totally safe is for batsmen to turn out in a suit of armour, or use a tennis ball - and these won't happen.

    It doesn't matter how many fast bowlers there are in the world - there are only eleven players in a team. The biggest problem seems to be that batsmen don't watch the ball like they used to in the days without helmets, thinking they'll be OK if they get hit.

    There are no easy answers. If you play the game you have to take the risks involved.

  • Jpizel on October 24, 2016, 16:36 GMT

    I'm sorry but i cant agree with the author. Hughes' death was a reak accident, Proof of this is there is not one period in time that batsmen were as under threat as the 80s and 90s. West indies were physically assaulted in the 75/6 series. The same with sri lanka in the 75 world cup. The west indies quartet in it various incarnations sent over 20 batsmen to the hospital. Mohinder aramath was knocked unconscious by imran khan. We would never know what the infamous SA pacemen did but im sure it was just as unpleasant. You cannot keep making excuses for the poor techniques we see today. Not criticizing the dead but anyone who saw the clip would realize that isnt how you play a short ball. The best hookers in the game: I chappell, sobers, richards and lara always made sure their heads were still and they were balance when playing the shot. Huges was virtually making a revolution when he got hit. Tragedy none the less.

  • Cricnympho on October 24, 2016, 11:08 GMT

    Why cant we change the rules like below - All bouncers outside off stump are allowed. Anything inline with stumps or leg side and above the shouldr of a batsman can be treated as a no ball.

    So bowlers can bowl occasional bouncers outside of off stump or below the shoulders.

    Bouncer frequency may decrease but some more rules like even if a ball brushes the stumps DRS can rule it out so to encourage bowlers to aim at stumps more often.

    These rules can encourage bowlers to bowl less at body and aim more at stumps or corridor of uncertainty.

    A batsman look to evade or defend a bouncer can certainly leave the bouncer comftbly if its directed away from stumps.

  • SVManjunath on October 24, 2016, 3:22 GMT

    Batsmen have the freedom to play every shot there is in the coaching manual. In fact they play shots which are not there in the manual. So, why should bowlers be limited on the bouncers. I sympathise on the Hughes issue. I also agree that protective gear, medical procedures have to keep pace with the advancements in cricket. But the batsmen too have to contribute their bit in this matter. There are 2 other factors that contribute to the faulty way in which batsmen tackle bouncers: 1. Size of the bats. They seem to grow bigger every year. 2. Faulty footwork and technique. Heavy bats also play a role here. Hence, discussions should also be held on these points.

  • RedDirt on October 23, 2016, 20:24 GMT

    Leave the rules alone. Generally, the batsmen are taking greater risks because they wear helmets. They are pulling 140+ km balls off their noses. That rarely used to happen and now it is the norm. If a batsman ducks in T20 he is reviled! Maybe it is the format that is wrong, not the rules...

  • cricfan80292555 on October 23, 2016, 8:53 GMT

    The only time I saw Thomson play live was for Middlesex in 1981 when he still managed to put one of the opposition opening bats into hospital (from memory, he certainly retired hurt).

  • cheguramana on October 23, 2016, 1:49 GMT

    Absolutely spot on, when you say the real issue was not addressed. Regarding fast bowling itself, your write up is an eye opener. Somehow the feeling was that the era of gat fast bowlers is long past. West Indies does not now have Roberts, Marshal, Holding, Garner. Australia does not have Lillee and Thomson. Pak does not have Imran Khan, Wasim and Waqar. South Africa does not have Allan Donald. With pitches slowing down all across the world, this is supposed to be the era of the batsmen. Wonder if fast bowling is really as lethal and widespread as you make it out to be. But then, it's not ok for even one human being to lose his life on the cricket pitch. For prevention of even just one more life being lost, I hope the ICC are reading your article and will do something about it.

  • Bishop on October 22, 2016, 22:47 GMT

    Regarding sledging, I note that @Big_Maxy_Walker refers to those of us who are not in favour "wowsers". 20 years ago, those who got upset at sexually suggestive remarks in the workplace for example would have also been considered "wowsers". 50 years ago, all sorts of racial abuse would have been tolerated as "all in good fun". Times change, and rightly so.

    @Big_Maxy_Walker also points out that these guys would have been sledged their whole lives, and if they couldn't handle it, they don't deserve to be there. Logically it follows that the sledging has no effect. My question is, if it has not effect, why do it? Some people here have pointed to the colour it adds to the game, and over the years there have been some incredibly witty bon mots. But 99% of sledging seems to be mean-spirited and spiteful. In my opinion, the only colour it adds to the game is poo brown.

  • masr37 on October 22, 2016, 20:35 GMT

    Oh - and a third bite - sorry to be so long winded. At 24 frames per second that very quick one from Thomson works out at around 109 mph. Allowing for the difficulty of determining precisely when the ball left his hand and when it hit the pad (and I must have replayed that delivery a dozen or more times) - so my counting could easily be anything up to a whole frame out in total - and the fact that he was timed in 1975 at Perth at 99.7 mph, that seems to tie in quite well. It puts his more normal deliveries around the 90+mark - he was trying pretty hard at the time so it seems not unreasonable - again allowing for a margin of error. It puts the other quicks in the mid to high 80s, - again I wouldn't argue. Mike

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