December 24, 2009

The case for fear

With no fear of decapitation to conquer, how can a cricketer be truly brave?

At Hays Paddock the other evening, the last Friday before Christmas, Kew's under-16s played Boroondara's under-16s. A creek gurgled, wildflowers grew, a dozen dog-walkers and their dogs went round and round. You had to peer closely for it to hit you that this was not the tranquil escape from the world that it seemed - helmets, three of them, on the heads of the boys in the middle.

Helmets? How strange. They played 21 overs a side. From start till stumps, the two batsmen plus the wicketkeeper wore blue helmets with white titanium bars across their faces, except when one of the batsmen was wearing a green helmet with white bars.

Kew batted first. Their score spluttered along, in bursts and silences, the most popular stroke a sort of shovel-sweep in a tight arc between mid-on and midwicket. After a while Boroondara's wicketkeeper, feeling clammy, extricated his head from the blue lid and white bars and barked advice at a couple of fielders. This was between overs. Then play resumed and the helmet went back on, even though the bowler, a smiley little fellow, was lobbing up full-pitched, looping straight-breaks that seldom beat the bat. After 21 overs the total was 6 for 114. Total hits on helmets? Zero.

In reply, Boroondara's batsmen began nervously - though not, as far as could be discerned from beyond the yellow boundary cones, because they feared possible brain damage or death. Balls in the second, sixth, ninth, 11th and 14th overs reared as high as the boys' bellybuttons. One ball jumped rib-high; one nearly neck-high. Another, released by a red-cheeked lad with a stutter at the top of his run-up, almost brushed a batsman's breastbone. The batsman, not noticeably terrified, took a giant swipe at it. At no stage was there any hint that heads might roll. Helmets nevertheless stayed rooted to skulls.

The boys of Hays Paddock punch one another's batting gloves and bowl a slower ball per over and generally take their lead from the men of Australia's Test team, who were at that moment stuck in tense struggle with West Indies on the other end of the continent. Marcus North and Brad Haddin were facing Sulieman Benn, a slow bowler, and they were wearing helmets, helmets with little bars across their faces.

At some juncture - and it happened so quietly that no one noticed - cricketers began donning helmets not so much to protect their heads, but out of habit.

Viv Richards, the last cricketer in Test history who could have worn a helmet and chose not to, ever, is now the last loud anti-helmet campaigner. Once, long ago, Viv said this: "[When you] cover a young cricketer in all kinds of padding and put him in to bat on a perfectly predictable pitch, there is no way he is going to develop the same degree of skill."

Viv was at it again recently, bewailing "all that King Arthur stuff" in an interview with Kevin Mitchell. The Guardian's Mike Selvey, cricket's wisest speaker of straight-out commonsense, called Viv mischievous, which was mischievous of Selvey, for Viv is not some jealous ex-champ foaming behind corporate-box perspex and drinking himself blotto over lunch. On this issue Viv is passionate and consistent. He expressed himself most eloquently in his second autobiography, Hitting Across the Line, in 1991, a time when metal and bars was still an unusual sight on 15-year-old heads. If we'd listened to Viv then, perhaps we'd be playing a different game now.

What Viv put forward was simply this: a case for fear. Growing up on diabolical Antiguan pitches, dressed in homemade cardboard pads, gave Viv the urge to play the hook shot. "To get rid of the thing." Being helmetless made him aware of danger, yes, but it also made him aggressive, instinctive, it made him feel brave, and out of this bravery was born confidence and the feeling that he, not the bowler, was the one in control. The helmet age knows no such dance between courage and fear. That dazzling tension has been struck out. Now, a bowler cannot maim a man. And with no fear - fear of decapitation - to conquer, how can a batsman be considered truly brave? "With the removal of that fear," said Viv, "a certain amount of excitement has gone."

Being helmetless made Richards aware of danger, yes, but it also made him aggressive, instinctive, it made him feel brave, and out of this bravery was born confidence and the feeling that he, not the bowler, was the one in control. The helmet age knows no such dance between courage and fear. That dazzling tension has been struck out

Eighteen years on, who'd dare pronounce the Master Blaster wrong? Helmets were supposed to embolden modern batsmen to hook balls off their eyeballs - the most exotic page in the textbook. Instead they mostly lurch on to the front foot, knowing no bouncer can scone them, breaking Bradman's Art of Cricket mantra about an initial back-foot movement being the best movement. And planting your weight on your front foot, your left shoulder tilting towards mid-off, is no place from which to attempt a hook shot.

Back when Viv's SS Jumbo was doing his talking for him, there was an incentive to hook bouncers to the fence: it might persuade the bowler to desist from aiming balls at your head. Not much urgent call for that now. Ensconced behind metal, batsmen prefer to weave and duck and wait for the percentage shot: drives, nudges, dainty little flicks. Inzamam-ul-Haq, Chris Gayle, Younis Khan and Virender Sehwag (twice) have erected Test triple-hundreds containing not one hooked four or six, according to Cricinfo's ball-by-ball commentaries.

If that sounds dreary, it has coincided with the world's pace stocks shrinking and the cricket ball apparently ceasing swinging - which, actually, might not be such a big coincidence. All those Haydenesque strides down the wicket leave bowlers 18 not 22 yards in which to swing it.

And another thing: it is hard to see people's faces, with everyone behind bars. Nothing can get in. And not much peeps out.

More exciting? Not a bit.

Get rid of them? "Foolhardy," says Selvey, "and very probably illegal under health and safety regulations."

But the players don't all wear helmets in Australian Rules, the rugbys or professional boxing, do they?

Probably things have gone too far for any kind of formal banning of helmets. It may not be too late for a gentle change in cricket culture. Hardest to convince might be the parents of small boys. Back at Hays Paddock, where not a hook stroke was seen, an incident took place near the end of Boroondara's failed run chase. At least an incident seemed to take place. No one could be sure. For there was no concern or commotion, and the fielders returned instantly to their positions. But there was a noise, a soft thud, and it looked like the batsman got caught in a front-foot tangle, and the ball, which was not particularly short or fast, appeared to rap his white titanium bars, low down.

Without his helmet on, the boy might have stepped back and hooked a six. Or he could have got a cut lip. Either way it would be something to see. And, as Viv has taught us, the boy with the cut lip would probably become a better cricketer.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Joe on December 27, 2009, 19:07 GMT

    Anyone who thinks that helmets are a sign of fear should volunteer to play without a helmet on the horrible pitch that was used for the last ODI between India and Sri Lanka. If they dare to play on that minefield and come back unhurt( and hopefully alive), we are willing to accept their arguments that helmets are a sign of fear. Wearing a helmet doesn't mean that a batsman is afraid. Its just like wearing an abdominal guard. I'm sure Sir Viv did wear one.

  • BILIGIRI on December 27, 2009, 9:05 GMT

    Sir Viv is right. Cricket has lost much of its real charm. Today's players are a pampered lot wearing a lot of protective gear and play on pitches which are covered. I read some posts here saying 'CALLING SIR VIV a all-time great is A JOKE'. They are JOKES. Do they know what they are talking?

    Sir Viv played with only 2 protective gear abdomen guard and pads cum gloves and faces some of the fastest bowlers of all times, quicks like Lillee, Thommo, Imran, Pascoe, Hogg, Snow, Willis, Procter, Hadlee, Kapil, Akram, etc in tests and country and his own mates , Roberts, Holding, Daniel, Croft, Garner, Clarke, Late Marshall, etc in local WI leagues and counties & spinners like Qadir, Underwood, Bedi, Chandra, Pras. etc

    He played in Packer WORLD series which was the toughest cricket in history ag the fastest bowlers in history without helmet. Bowlers used to quake when he came in to bat and crowds swelled to watch him bat. He is the among the top 5 greatest of all times

  • BILIGIRI on December 26, 2009, 16:09 GMT

    Some posts here question the greatness of Sir Viv. Its an insult to the game itself. His was the original master blaster, the destroyer of bowlers, who used to take quick bowlers head on WITHOUT HELMET and plaster them to all parts of the field. 99% of the players during his time wore helmets and other protective gears. The Packer World series was the toughest cricket and he played some terrifying quicks without helmet on the fastest of Australian pitches (which then were very quick) and destroyed them. He had several outstanding scores to his name.

    Viv was not a man for stats, he was an entertainer and a crowd puller. See some of his videos on YOU TUBE and make out. Among the greatest of all times , top 5 for all times. HE should be there in an all time great team for his sheer magnetic presence itself, the swagger, dare devilry and audacity.

    All modern greats SACHIN, Viru, Lara, Warne, Inzamam, Dravid, Laxman, Jayasuriya, Ponting, etc rate Sir Viv as their idol. Ask them ..

  • Ben on December 26, 2009, 14:16 GMT

    Helmets are the reason why batting averages have increased more then pitches, bats, smaller grounds, etc... Sure, people wore helmets in the 1990's but the players of the 2000's grew up wearing helmets as opposed to 1990's players who more then less saw it as an extra bit of protection.

  • usman on December 26, 2009, 11:41 GMT

    Quite incredible that the one who listed the genuine fast bowlers Viv faced, forgot the mention of Lillie and Thomson with whom Richards had the most magnificent battles, fighting fire with fire, emerging mostly the winner.

    Helmets have taken out quite some sting from the armory of fast bowlers along with the scandalous bouncer restriction rule. But then, one can imagine where Sachin Tendulkar would have been right now had he not been wearing a helmet when a scorching 150+ kph short delivery from Shoaib in Karachi 2004 thudded onto his helmet visibly shaking the living daylights out of any event he meekly got bowled the next over or so to Asif steill reeling from the ferocious impact.

  • B on December 26, 2009, 10:14 GMT

    While I feel that players of today should wear helmets, given that the bouncer is a delivery of choice for bowlers - in baseball, helmets are standard practice even when a pitch at a batter's body automatically earns the batter a walk; I do whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ryan. Batsmen, who otherwise may have had indistinguishable careers, record career averages of over 50 and yes, hit 200s and 300s - up until the 70s, except for select Indian batsmen such as Merchant, Hazare, Manjarekar, Umrigar, Viswanath and Gavaskar, the rest floundered against genuine pace -it begs the question as to whether Tendulkar and Dravid and the other Indian batting "heroes"minus helmets would have been routine journeymen with batting averages a clear 10-15 lower. Yuvraj Singh, despite all the armour, averages the same as Pataudi did 40 years ago and the latter battled Hall and Griffith, and that too with one eye. Wonder who the hero is here!

  • Rajesh on December 26, 2009, 3:49 GMT

    This is a stupid argument. It is like saying "you should stop wearing shoes so that your feet become stronger due to the cuts and bruises you endure and learn to avoid". Instead I would say you should wear the shoes and scale higher and more difficult mountains. Besides, you don't even offer any proof that the batsmen have become more timid since Sir Viv Richards' time. There maybe other solutions to improve batting skills like making the balls that swing better, spin better, and are faster or bouncier. You certainly have a convoluted sense of progress. You are willing to put 14 year old children in grave danger so that the art of cricket (might) profit - and not even back it up with some decent argument except that it is a very strong hunch you have.

  • Gwendoline on December 25, 2009, 23:39 GMT

    I do seem to remember Richie Richardson able to wear a helmet and choosing not to. Also have a vivid memory of Zaheer Abaas walking out to bat in a floppy hat while all hell was breaking loose and everybody else wore helmets. But for that teeny oversight of the Ever Underrated Great Richie a very good article. Couldn't agree more.

  • Robert on December 25, 2009, 16:28 GMT

    I am surprised Christian Ryan and especially Viv Richards, his captain, forgot the accident to Phil Simmons, opening the batting without a helmet for WI v Gloucs in 1988. Hit by a bouncer he was rushed to Frenchays Hospital where emergency brain surgery saved his life. It so happened that Frenchays was one of the leading neurosurgical units in the UK. A few more minutes without cutting edge treatment and Simmons would have been dead. Where does bravery become foolhardiness? It was precisely because of a series of near-fatalities (Contractor 1962, Jackie Hendricks 1965, Roger Davis 1971, Graeme Watson 1972, Chatfield 1975) in the 60s and 70s that helmets came in.

  • Jason on December 25, 2009, 15:34 GMT

    Im sorry but I have to disagree with this article. If it was the absence of a helmet that makes batsman aggressive, why is it that the runs per over in test/odi cricket are higher in recent times? Why are there players such as Jayasuriya, Afridi and Sehwag who are even MORE aggressive than Sir Viv?

    Its quite like saying drive a car without a seat belt because it will make you go faster: safety is there to protect human beings who feel pain and may not have the reflexes of the great Viv Richards! Its easy to say ''dont wear a helmet'' sitting behind a computer but a different scenario when the bowler running towards you is a Malinga, Brett Lee or Dale Steyn.

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