May 19, 2011

How the helmet turned cricket on its head

Today's cricketers don't quake in their boots at the sight of a speeding ball aimed at them. And that's a good thing

I was having lunch recently at a sports café when my attention was distracted from my family: a 1970s Test in Australia was being aired. If it had been a recent game I would not have been as interested, since you see plenty of those.

A pace-dominated Australian attack was enjoying the upper hand, but what struck me was how the batsmen were responding to these fast bowlers. They were completely intimidated and reacting as if hand grenades were being hurled at them. Every batsman jumped onto the back foot, deep inside the batting crease, to put more distance between himself and the bowler and thereby give himself more time to face the delivery. Clearly the bowler was the bully here.

This made for a striking change from what we generally see today, where modern batsmen advance towards a fast bowler, happy to shorten the distance between themselves and the speeding ball.

The batsman is the bully today. An obvious reason for this reversal is the nature of pitches. Granted, that match from the 70s was played on a track offering some pace and bounce, but it's not like you won't ever see such a pitch today. And not all the fast bowlers in that game were bowling at 90 mph; there were 80-mph swing bowlers too. But the batsmen looked timid in comparison to those who play today.

That match, to me, reiterated, what we cricketers have acknowledged but perhaps not accurately estimated: the impact one piece of equipment, the batting helmet, has had on the game, turning the bullies into the bullied. The batsmen in that 70s game on TV were wearing traditional woollen caps used in the pre-helmet era.

We cannot under-estimate the massive effect the helmet has had on the game. It has changed the equation between bat and ball more than pitches have done, for it took away from the fast bowler his greatest weapon - the ability to induce fear. With all the vulnerable areas of the body now well protected, the fast bowler cannot intimidate a batsman anymore. The sight of a tailender ending up near the square-leg umpire as a fast bowler ran in menacingly is now a relic of the past

Ian Chappell related to me how he and Ian Healy once sat down to debate which was the better Australian side - Chappell's or Waugh's - by discussing a hypothetical match between the two. "Is this match going to be played with helmets or without helmets?" was the first question Healy raised, because he felt it would have a great bearing on the contest.

Like me, Healy played in the helmet era, but both of us only wore the equipment in senior cricket. We played our junior cricket without helmets, so we had a healthy respect for the cricket ball and the pain it could cause.

The junior-level pitches in Mumbai were mostly substandard, and it was common for an innocent-looking delivery to suddenly rise from a good length and hit the batsman in the face or head. Every young batsman of that time had stories to tell about visits to the hospital to get stitches for a bleeding cheek or a split eyebrow. A very close friend of mine, who played junior cricket with me, wears an artificial set of front teeth after he lost his originals at the age of 16 in our college nets. So while we were immensely grateful to have helmets with front grilles at the international level to protect us from the big West Indian fast bowlers, we understood the damage a cricket ball could inflict.

Batsmen today have no experience of playing cricket without helmets. These days kids are not allowed to bat in the nets without helmets. When an eight-year-old aspiring cricketer buys his first complete set of cricket gear, the helmet is always on the list. This generation of batsmen has no horrid injury tales - their own or those of their friends - to tell, and have, thankfully, grown up without any psychological scars. And because of it they are not instinctively fearful of the cricket ball, like we were. For them the ball hurtling in at 80 mph is to be smashed into the second tier of the stands.

To me the helmet is a positive addition to cricket. It's terrible to see a teenager lose his front teeth forever. Also, there may have been several exceptionally gifted young batsmen who gave up the game after serious injuries or who were not the same after receiving bloody noses. Instead, what we have today is a No. 10 batsman going down on one knee right in the face of an 80-mph delivery and turn the bat upwards to send one sailing over the keeper's head for four. Fans scream "Dilscoop", and I think, "Thank god for the helmet".

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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