Mark Nicholas

Safety isn't only about the helmet

Insisting on batsmen wearing standardised headgear that compromises their comfort is risky. Players should rather learn to cope better with the short ball

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Alastair Cook had reservations about the new ECB-approved helmet, but he managed to score a century wearing one  •  Getty Images

Alastair Cook had reservations about the new ECB-approved helmet, but he managed to score a century wearing one  •  Getty Images

A spectator jostled John Snow by the picket fence of the SCG in 1970-71 because Snow's short-pitched ball had hit Terry Jenner in the face. Jenner survived the blow to make a quick and full recovery. The crowd became so animated, combustible even, that Ray Illingworth led his team off the field. Once the situation had settled, Illingworth brought them back and the match continued. Probably, this had nothing on Bodyline.
Ewen Chatfield, the New Zealand seamer, was hit in the temple by Peter Lever. He staggered and fell to the ground unconscious. X-rays showed a hairline fracture to the skull. He too survived to make a full recovery but at the moment of impact, those nearby feared the worst.
Bishan Bedi declared India's innings closed at 97 for 5 in Kingston in 1976. He had a couple of his batsmen in hospital and figured that risking the tail against Clive Lloyd's attack on a relaid and unpredictable pitch was stupidity.
David Hookes had his jaw smashed by Andy Roberts in 1977-78, the first season of World Series Cricket. Hookes was wearing a cap. There was a view in Australia at the time that the damage to Hookes was enough to prove WSC to be the real deal.
My cheekbone was broken by Gladstone Small's shortish ball on a flat Southampton pitch. I was batting in a sun hat, had 60-odd, and was seeing the ball well. Bob Willis brought himself back into the Warwickshire attack in the middle of the afternoon, which convinced my partner out in the middle, David Turner, to call for a helmet. I figured I didn't need one. I didn't see Small's next ball at all. I still believe in a batsman's right to a choice.
Danger in sport moves at speed. What seems perfectly safe one minute is a crisis the next
Alex Tudor was hit in the helmet so badly by a seriously fast bouncer from Brett Lee that Lee felt violently sick, both physically and emotionally. In the days that followed, Lee questioned his capacity for such battle.
Phillip Hughes was struck in the back of the neck and died.
These incidents, and many more, have chilled us to the bone. The global outpouring for Hughes and his bereft family told us much about ourselves. A glimpse of mortality will do that, especially in a game so loved and trusted.
Alastair Cook is uncertain about the ECB regulation that insists he wears the new British Safety Standard-compliant helmet. Having said that, he made a hundred for Essex this week batting in one.
Danger in sport moves at speed. What seems perfectly safe one minute is a crisis the next. Many sports deal in the sort of danger where gladiatorial thrills outweigh common sense and humans morph from gentle friends to threatening enemies. Among these are fast bowlers, egged on by their colleagues. We are all to blame and yet no one is to blame. The game's the thing. In the age of litigation, governing bodies are doing more than ever before to ensure safety and prevent the need for response in hindsight.
Cook is a fine player of fast bowling, who has largely avoided physical damage. He knows his game and his limitations. The key for him is to see the ball early and move late. For this he needs to be confident and comfortable. An unwieldy or heavy helmet, a visor or grille that impairs vision: indeed, any headgear that simply does not feel right for whatever reason, compromises both these needs. Ideally, and certainly at the professional level, protective equipment should be custom-made for each user. It is unwise to insist upon a standard design and may be self-defeating. Of course, any design should provide the necessary safeguards but within personal requirement.
Since the death of Hughes, manufacturers have paid greater attention to the area around the upper neck that leads into the skull. Protection has now been added to the base of the back of the helmet but it has not been obligatory and many players have found it awkward and restricting, so have not worn it.
The specific issue for Cook is different. He prefers more leeway than the recently standardised and mandatory 50-millimetre gap between the peak of the helmet and the grille. He says that the top bar of the grille now directly interferes with his line of sight. This may be the helmet itself or it may be the shape of his face, or head. He feels safer if he has a better view of the ball, which makes sense, and he was able to adjust the grille on his previous helmet to accommodate that. He is neither careless about his safety nor about the example he sets. Far from it. He is driven to find the right helmet and the most realistic resolution to achieve greater safety. For the moment, at least, he has done the right thing by his employer, who will be relieved of the runs scored under the application of its jurisdiction.
After the initial flurry of helmets that had plastic visors attached - in the late 1970s Dennis Amiss and Tony Greig wore the white motorbike-styled headgear with the visor pulled down, while Barry Richards wore the same helmet but left the visor up, and thus looked a bit ridiculous but felt comfortable - most batsmen chose to wear a helmet with side pieces that covered both temples and ears. The thinking was that instinct and reaction, crucial attributes for any batsman against fast bowling, would naturally lead to a turn or duck of the head under duress and that the shell of the helmet would be enough to protect the skull.
Batting cannot be "safe". For all the blows to the head, the heart is rarely protected. Or the throat
I played with three batsmen particularly gifted against fast bowling - Gordon Greenidge, Robin Smith and David Gower - none of whom wore a visor or grille. The only brief exception to this came when Smith was under fire from Waqar Younis in a county match on a poor pitch at The Oval. Mid-morning he called for a grille, batted with it until lunch, and having hated it, reverted to just the side pieces after lunch. In contrast, Greenidge was once so shocked by the threat of Sylvester Clarke on a bad pitch at The Oval that he went out after tea in a sun hat, saying he had to be at his absolute sharpest to cope. The implication was, I suppose, that the helmet was giving him a false sense of security. He made 84, a magnificent innings that gave us just about enough to defend, and we won a nail-biter by two runs. At the climax of this Surrey run chase, Robin Jackman was hit in the throat by Malcolm Marshall. After the immediate trauma and panic, he saw a funnier side than we did - a nervous response for sure. He did not last much longer, however, and Marshall soon finished off the match. (I should point out that these two pitches at The Oval were out of kilter with the usual high standard of surfaces there.)
Batting cannot be "safe". For all the blows to the head, the heart is rarely protected. Or the throat. But the safety of batsmen is manifest and the helmet is now standard at all levels from junior cricket up to Cook and Co. Technique is less good than it once was, not least because the modern batsman often attacks the short ball from the front foot. Why? Because he is wearing a helmet. The idea of doing such a thing against Lillee and Thomson back in the mid-1970s would not have crossed a batsman's mind. Roy Fredericks, however, that brilliant West Indian opener, took them on to memorable effect off the back foot.
So when helmets are issued at junior level, and while the ECB insist on standardised safety equipment at all levels, it would be good if coaches taught a more secure and proven method against the short ball. Prevention comes in many forms.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK