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One of cricket's many charms used to be the way it was possible to walk into a ground and instantly recognise the batsman at the crease. Apart from his style, he was unmistakable because of his build, features, headgear or hair. Who could have failed to pick out Cyril Washbrook with his cap at a jaunty angle, or Jack Robertson, who wore his with the precision of a guardsman? Then again, there was the hairstyles of Herbert Sutcliffe, black patent-leather glinting in the sun, complete with the straightest of partings, the blonde waves of Joe Hardstaff, Reg Simpson's dark curls, and Denis Compton's, so unlike those Brylcreem advertisements, forever unruly. Today, as often as not, it is impossible to tell who is batting without first consulting a scorecard, so many players being encrusted in helmets and camouflaged by visors. This gives them a space-age image, devoid of individuality and as dull as dirty denims.
Obviously a helmet makes batting, which personally I never considered as even a vaguely dangerous occupation, less dangerous; just at wearing one in a car, or on a bicycle in traffic, would reduce the risk of injury following a road accident. However, assuming the player obeys the fundamental principle of batsmanship and keeps his eye on the ball, he should not be hit on the head by a fast bowler - provided the pitch is reasonable and the batsman competent. He is, in fact, safer than a fieldsman in any of the more suicidal bat-and-pad positions or a wicket-keeper standing up to fast-medium bowling. It is interesting that 'keepers, who have the riskiest job in cricket, have so far rejected the helmet, perhaps because increased safety fails to compensate for lack of comfort. No batsman with reasonably quick reflexes should be struck on the head, though there is always the risk of his edging a hook into his face. The latter fate is most likely to occur against very fast bowling, especially when the stroke has been attempted against a ball that is too fully pitched for hooking safely.
Although helmets rob batsmen of much of their personality, and are aesthetically unattractive, they have become almost standard equipment in first-class cricket. But are they necessary? In an effort to find the answer, I have spoken to a number of very good players who performed in the helmetless era, to discover how often they were struck on the head by fast bowling. I chose cricketers with different techniques - with intriguing results.
Reg Simpson was a tall and graceful back-foot player who never bothered to hook and probably coped better with real pace than any other Englishman in the post-war period. He was never hit or even looked in the slightest danger as he watched the balls fly harmlessly through to the wicket-keeper. Colin Milburn, a stocky, impulsive hooker, was also never hit. This was true, also, of two contrasting West Indians: Clyde Walcott, a big, strong, powerful hooker, with a high backlift, and Everton Weekes, small, neat and very quick-moving.
Gary Sobers never bothered with a thigh pad, so it is difficult to imagine he would have ever required a helmet. He was hit on one occasion, in England at Lord's by a medium-pacer when the ball lifted off a length. Denis Compton, another who never wore a thigh pad, was also hit only once in a long career. It happened when he changed his stroke at the last moment, against a no ball from Ray Lindwall, and the ball flew off the edge into his face. Brian Close, despite an initial movement forward, had noticeably less difficulty in coping with the genuine speed of Roberts, Holding and Daniel, when in his mid-forties, than his younger colleagues. He, too, was never hit on the head, though he did twice mis-hook medium-paced bowlers, whom he dismissed as trundlers, into his face on dodgy pitches. My own experience, as an essentially forward player and a non-hooker, was being hit on the back of the head when I ducked to a ball from Keith Miller, which failed to rise as much as expected, and unintentionally nodding down a delivery of no more than medium-pace which rose unexpectedly in a Championship match.
It is fair to say that none of the players I have mentioned required a helmet for protection, for either physical or mental reasons, which is, of course, why they are worn. Which leads to the question, has the pace of the bowlers increased dramatically? I don't personally think so. Apart from anything else, the bowlers are now forced to release the ball farther from the batsman than when the law allowed them an enormous drag. Gordon Rorke, for example, actually broke the popping crease with his back foot. On the other hand, there has been a marked increase in the amount of fast, fast-medium, and medium-paced seam bowling.
Are the present-day pitches more uneven in bounce? The wickets overeas do appear to have become more receptive to seam and less helpful for batting; but, remembering the ridge at Lord's in the 1950s, this, I think, does not apply in this country. The best reason for wearing a helmet was put forward by Graham Gooch: In first-class cricket, the helmets are now popular and I wear one all the time. I've got no qualms about it. I just feel more confident and therefore a better player when I'm wearing one. The day can't be far off when batsmen start wearing them in club cricket. If you're tempted to ware one, do so - and if anyone laughs at you, just point to the runs in the scorebook. Although the cynic might point to the runs made by Sir Donald Bradman, Gary Sobers, or Vivian Richards without one, if a helmet gives a player confidence it must be an asset to him. A helmet might have made a considerable difference to a fine county cricketer of my vintage, who regularly clocked up over 2,000 runs a season, yet was so apprehensive that he scored many fewer than he should have done against a team which contained a really quick bowler.
John Snow, who in his time has hit his share of batsmen with the bouncer, favours the helmet because it makes life easier for the members of the later order. It is also interesting that David Gower, who is a lovely mover and has lots of time to play his strokes, has, in a comparatively short career, twice been hit on the head. Once it was his own fault through his ducking into the ball; on the other occasion he mis-hooked into his face. The latter is liable to happen even to as fine a natural hooker as David; but, rather strangely in these circumstances, he scorns the use of a visor with his helmet and the extra protection it provides. One of the first times I saw protective headgear used was by Mike Brearley and Geoff Boycott in a Test match on a placid pitch against bowling of such gentle pace that they seemed much over-dressed; but presemably it gave them extra and valuable confidence.
A fascinating, somewhat ironic outcome of the helmet has been the marked increase in the number of batsmen hit on the head and in the face. This can't be put down solely to the increase in fast and medium-paced bowling. What, then is the reason? My view is that the extra protection has meant that batsmen have become less worried and apprehensive. As a result, they are attempting to play, or hook, deliveries which previously they would have been thankful to have avoided. The outcome is that they are not moving quite so quickly, and are being hit.
Whether the helmet is a sensible adjunct to batting, like pads and gloves, or merely a well-marketed gimmick and a modern trend is a matter of opinion. Although on many occasions a helmet is unnecessary, it can hardly be condemned if it provides batsmen as successful as Gooch and Boycott with extra confidence. Less objectionable than the dirt-track crash-helmet type are those that look like caps. I would rather they were not worn in the field - but that is another issue.