Rohrer's blow a wake-up call
Ben Rohrer is over the worst of it. So much so that he blazed 276 for the New South Wales Futures League team last week and has taken his place in the Blues' Sheffield Shield XI playing Tasmania this one. But there will still be moments when he remembers November 3 at the MCG, where he was struck a horrid blow behind the right ear.
Chief among these was the day in early February when Rohrer came face to face - and bat to ball - with Chris Tremain, the man who had struck him that very blow with a short ball whirring in at him from around the wicket.
As former NSW team-mates, Rohrer and Tremain are on good terms, and there was even a gentlemen's agreement before the second XI game began. "We spoke before the game and he said 'I'll promise not to bounce you if you don't bounce me'," Rohrer told ESPNcricinfo, "and I took him up on that pretty quickly!"
But it was still an odd experience for Rohrer, facing the man who had felled him all over again. "It was just weird watching him run in and bowl to me," he said. "Just seeing him running in might have brought something back."
The something was less to do with the blow itself than its prelude and aftermath, which reflect the way cricket's attitude to head injuries once was and now can never be again. In the winter, Rohrer had glimpsed the new helmet devised by the NSW supplier Masuri, and asked for his own edition of the improved headgear, which provided more extensive protection for the sides and rear.
Around this time, Cricket NSW had entered into an agreement with Masuri to order enough of the new helmets to fit out those members of the state squad who wanted them, but the lag time between order in August and delivery in November was considerable. Rohrer asked for the helmet both before and after the state limited-overs tournament, but was told they were yet to arrive.
After he was struck by Tremain, driven from the field via motorised stretcher and taken to hospital for assessment of what turned out to be a heavy and long-lasting concussion, Rohrer returned to the MCG. Some of the Victorian players had already been able to get their hands on the new helmets, and upon donning one worn by Marcus Stoinis, Rohrer discovered his injury could have been avoided. It still rankles.
"I was obviously very frustrated and still at the moment I've got some symptoms, but very frustrated with the whole process," Rohrer said. "Especially with a new model coming out, I thought it'd be quite easy to get a hold of, but whatever it was, we just didn't have the access to the safest helmets. It was frustrating more than anything."
In the weeks after he was struck, Rohrer was not only physically unwell but mentally unsteady. Sitting alongside Trent Copeland at the SCG cafe later in November he looked awfully pale, and he was battling equally to get his buffeted head around normally simple tasks such as choosing his words. Mercifully, most of this gradually passed.
"I was a different person there for quite a while," Rohrer said. "Especially the first few weeks I even knew my personality wasn't the same. I felt like I had to really think about what I was saying and my words and how to pronounce words, which is a very funny feeling. But that's all gone now, which is great, it's just the little bit of dizziness but that hopefully will go in the next month or two."
A first attempt to get back and play the week after he had been struck was aborted after one difficult net session, and Rohrer was working his way through a longer rehabilitation process when Phillip Hughes was hit on November 25, collapsing to the ground in a scene no one present at the ground would ever wish to revisit. Through the shock, pain and grieving that followed, Rohrer was placed in the difficult position of being repeatedly told how lucky he had been. He did not want to hear it.
"The worst part of that time was people telling me how I should feel about it and telling me I should feel lucky and all that sort of stuff," he said. "But I didn't really feel any of that, I was more just feeling grief at losing a good mate and thinking how terribly unlucky he was. To think how many people do get hit, I've seen at least one guy get hit in the helmet every game since I've been back. It's just incredibly unlucky that he was injured like that, whereas the rest of us get away with it."
As the rest of Australia's cricket community tried to get on with playing the game, Rohrer fashioned his own rehabilitation. He returned in a Melbourne Renegades trial fixture in early December, then delivered performances of increasing assurance during the BBL. After facing Tremain, he clattered the ACT's bowlers for the double century and has actually found himself feeling less apprehensive about being hit than before.
"More than anything spending those few second XI and club games in the middle has allowed me to push past a few things and get a clear mind, which is a pretty key thing to batting," Rohrer said. "The last thing you want is a little man on your shoulder talking to you, so that was a nice thing.
"I think I'm less cautious early, I'll really be pushing forward, making sure I'm making the right movements and I don't know why that is. Whether it is because I've been hit badly now and got through that, my mindset's changed where I'm not fearing it as much as I did before. That's the odd thing - you'd think you'd go the other way."
What has certainly gone the other way is cricket's attitude to head injuries. Where once Rohrer could remember the fielding team's principle concern with a helmet hit being to exhort their fast bowler to go in even harder next time, now the looks of concern and rushes towards the batsmen in a spirit of care are palpable.
"There's noticeable changes, the first thing now is for people to check if they're alright rather than, they used to want to be seen to be encouraging their bowlers to keep bowling that way," he said. "That's the one thing I've noticed, every time someone gets hit there's nine or 10 players checking straight away whether they're ok, and then off the field Masuri presented us with a new design for a bit more protection around the neck area. People have been woken up by this and it's only going to be a good thing for protection."
The new urgency about protection was summed up by the fact that in the days after Rohrer was hit, NSW staff searched Sydney sports goods stores to find any early deliveries of the new helmets, while when the Australian Test team resumed for the delayed Adelaide Test, they were ever present. Further developments have come in the shape of proposed new neck guards from Masuri, while at the World Cup Ireland's John Mooney has modelled his own version of a rear grille.
As for Rohrer, he is back playing Shield cricket as he should be, and looking forward to resuming battle with Tremain. He does not expect the gentlemen's agreement to last long, mind. "He's too competitive to let that one stand - I'm sure it'll be on for young and old next time I face him."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig