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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 21, 2011, 19:06 GMT

    Helmets must stay as they can save a life. But chest pads arm gaurds ad all other upper body armour should go. Seeing batsmen walk out with more armour than a tank to face medium pacers is just sad. Its time that the administrators do something to even the contest between bat and ball. I would like to see if some of these batsmen will trust there skill enough to step foward to a fast bowler if there ribs can get bruised or there arms broken.

    The most skilled batsmen of today will always wonder if they have the mental fortitude to face down a Holding, Lillee, Thompsan, Imran, Donald or Marshall. With nothing between them and a nasty case of pain being there skill and a piece of wood.

  • Pradeep on May 21, 2011, 17:13 GMT

    great article, great perspective

  • uthaman on May 21, 2011, 13:44 GMT

    Todays cricket is favoring batsman a true statement mostly because of free hits, bouncer rules, wide rules in ODIs, fielding restrictions in ODIs. But definitely not because of they wear helmets and protective equipments. Look at the amount of cricket these guys play. Are you saying they won't have one second of concentration lapse or momentary error in judgement. You guys are saying as if Viv Richards was never hit on the head. He was hit on the head. Rodney hogg hit him on the face. I am pretty sure he got few blows in 70s against Australia. Imagine someone like Akhtar hit him in the face. He would have got multiple stitches. Gavaskar was not going to be hit anyway coz of his height.

  • arctic on May 21, 2011, 11:15 GMT

    @Tippler, The game has indeed moved on,and one of the reasons for the slow decline of Test cricket is also the skewed balance nowadays in favor of batsmen, which is what the author of the article is alluding to.Compared to yesteryears, the batsmen are padded up head to toe like astronauts and still have rules in their favor.I bleieve that most of these batsmen have not been tested, like those of yesteryears, where batsmanship was not just a test of batting skills but also courage,that had an element of overcoming mortal fear.And that's what makes Bradman peerless: that test by Bodyline;the ultimate champion of the fear factor show in cricket,aside from the unmatched avg. lying in the stratosphere.On the question of helmets i concur that having them is essential,however the game needs a bit more lively pitches,that have gone slow over the years,as that would not only test the best but also produce more fast bowlers;an endangered species, who are dwindling faster than the tiger. Cheers.

  • P Subramani on May 21, 2011, 8:12 GMT

    artictern, there are some things that I would like to add after reading your comments. Firstly, I am not an Englishman who were without doubt concious of class. My expression about a 'coal miner' was just off the cuff. The other thing is that Bradman was indeed a great. There can be no two opinions on that. It is just that cricket had not evolved as much in the 20s and 40s when he played as it has today. And so we have to make allowances on both sides of the discussion and come to an objective decision. We are on the subject of helmets and by innuendo,how its use meant a less courageous generation than the one to which the Bradmans and the Hammonds belonged. I only believe that cricket has been gained with the addition of this protective gear.

  • bani on May 21, 2011, 3:53 GMT

    turn to some real blogs guys..don't just fight on a topic with your arguments that has no data to support.. read the blog by anatha narayanan in cricinfo...more informative based on real data...who scored mored runs against quality bowling. here is the link..

  • Kaze on May 21, 2011, 0:22 GMT

    Funny how you only hear mention of certain batsmen when you talk about playing without helmets. What happened to Bradman, I remember reading that he used to bat with a steak in his gloves. They didn't even have proper gloves in his era.

  • Dummy4 on May 20, 2011, 22:44 GMT

    What about the toe crushers? Any 'helmet' needed there?

  • Kerin on May 20, 2011, 21:31 GMT

    Bowl a yorker and he will be a walker!

  • arctic on May 20, 2011, 16:28 GMT

    @Tippler, Indeed there were no speed guns, however read Larwood's details and you'll find what Wisden almanac mentions. he was a tearaway fast bowler and injured many in his career, including the Aus. captain during the bodyline series. Give credit where its due, and acknowledge that Bradman adapted well to such vicious threat in the form of bodyline, and still came out with such avg. And bodyline with bouncers upon bouncers and stacked legside field has not been replicated. Also it was England that was the class conscious society and not the Australians, so your class spin over Larwood's origins is off the mark.

    It was Bodyline that brought a 99 avg. player to 56, and it injured quite a few others almost mortally, in the meantime it was on, so that was indeed a vicious chapter in cricket history and downplaying it while defending helmeted cricketers on the other is somewhat less objective. Its not cricket.

    Please print atleast, this for the sake of fairmindedness.

  • No featured comments at the moment.