Safe helmets, a work in progress

There are no global standards for helmets at present, but measures are being put in place to increase the security they provide

Nagraj Gollapudi
Phillip Hughes checks his helmet after being struck by a bouncer, India v Australia, 4th Test, Delhi, 1st day, March 22, 2013

Dr Ranson's study found the back of the neck, where Phillip Hughes was struck, to be a "vulnerable" area  •  BCCI

There is one question bound to resonate loudest in the aftermath of Phillip Hughes' death. Are helmets in professional cricket adequately equipped and designed to protect the batsman's face and head? With no international standards in place, there is no certain answer.
A study conducted by Dr Craig Ranson, a sports physiotherapist at Cardiff Metropolitan University, as part of a wider project commissioned by the ICC in 2011 on improving helmet standards found that significant head and facial injuries continue to occur despite the protection.
Ranson, who was then part of the ICC medical panel and continues to be a consultant, recommended that cricket helmet design and "associated National and International Safety Standards should be improved to provide increased protection against head injury related to ball impact to the grille and shell of the helmet." His team pointed out that as recently as 2013 outdated specification standards dating back to the late 1990s were being used worldwide during the testing phase while making helmets.
With no global regulation in place, manufacturers in various countries have relied on the two main safety standards: British, which underwent a massive upgrade in December 2013 from the previous one instituted in 1997, and Australia-New Zealand, which has remained the same from 1998.
Although the ICC declined ESPNcricinfo's request for an interview with Ranson at the moment, information from a paper he had co-authored and published in the February 2013 issue of British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the three primary modes of failure related to helmets were:
  • The ball bursting between the peak of the helmet and the grille
  • The grille itself deforming and making contact with the face
  • Contact around the side and the back of the helmet
Ranson, Nicholas Pierce and Mark Young - the co-authors - had studied video footage of 35 batting-helmet related injuries between 2003 and 2012 gathered from various sources including the ICC, ECB, and various Full Member nations, and even other resources like the internet, for 'Batting head injury in professional cricket: a systematic video analysis of helmet safety characteristics'
The authors observed that though the specified gap between the peak of the helmet and the grille was 55 mm, the ball, which is 73 mm in diameter, was still able to pierce through and hit the face to cause serious injuries, including fractures. In his study, Ranson had found there was "excessive" upward flexion of the peak and downward flexion of the grille allowing the ball to penetrate.
Stuart Broad, wearing an innovatively designed and popular helmet by Ayrtek, had broken his nose in the Old Trafford Test in August after being hit by a bouncer from India fast bowler Varun Aaron in this fashion.
Angus Porter, chief executive of Professional Cricketers Association in England, admitted that challenges remained in moulding helmets to exact specifications. Porter, who has a PhD in material sciences, volunteered to be part of a smaller panel in the UK, which worked closely with Ranson's team in upgrading the specifications to be measured against the new British standard.
Despite the slow start, Porter said the ICC, ECB and PCA were moving in the right direction and hoped the findings would be adopted worldwide. "The new British standard was approved this summer by British Standard Institute after a couple of years of hard work; we now have testing houses accredited; and manufacturers are putting helmets through the accreditation process."
Dr Ranson observed in his paper that though the specified gap between the peak of the helmet and the grille was 55 mm, the ball, which is 73 mm in diameter, was still able to pierce through and hit the face and cause serious injuries including fractures
To prevent facial and frontal head injury, Ranson recommended the projectile testing methods used to validate the facemasks worn by catchers in baseball, which the British and British and Australia/New Zealand standards have adopted.
"The facemask that the catcher wears, crouching behind the batter, is tested under conditions where a projectile has been fired at it from a close range. The test was if the grille or the ball came in contact with the face or head then that mask would fail. That is the principle we have adopted for standards under the new tests for cricket helmets."
Porter confirmed the new standards have made it difficult for the ball to funnel through or get stuck in the gap separating the peak and the grille. "One of the things required is the helmet is tested with the grille at the widest gap available."
Most of the brands have taken the new safety standards on board and modified their helmets accordingly. The latest one from Masuri, one of the popular brands used by professional players across all age-groups, has a double-bar grill. Some other brands, Porter said, have a very rigid peak.
But what about the back of the helmet, an area that has become quite significant since Hughes' accident?
Ranson's study found the back of the head to be a "vulnerable" area with risk of concussion being a major concern. "Prevention might be achieved via improved shock attenuation and by extending the shell of the helmet to cover the entire occipital region," the paper said. "This is because in some instances the ball partially struck the helmet and partially directly struck the underlying occiput, an area of the head that does not seem to be completely assessed within the current cricket helmet standard impact attenuation test specifications.
According to Porter, modifications to the back of the helmet remain a work-in-progress. "We have specified that the helmets need to be tested both at the sides and near the base of the shell instead of just testing the crown the shell." What has not been done, he admits, is to specify how much of the head needs to be covered or how low down the helmet needs to come.
The debate over the measures that can be accommodated to make a helmet safe is never ending. Edouard Ferdinands, a biomechanist at Sydney University, suggested using skullcaps inside the helmets to cushion blows like the one Hughes suffered.
Over the years there been talk about adopting crash helmets used by drivers and bikers in motor sports. However, there are practical issues to consider when using them in cricket. "Whilst it is understood that crash helmets offer probably the best head protection available, such helmets have not been viewed as a realistic reference point because they are heavy and designed for a very different purpose."
Despite the evolving specifications, one important factor that gets ignored and is under-reported, is that some players are reluctant to adapt to helmet changes. Amit Desai, director of Pro-Tech Sports and Safety Products, an Indian helmet manufacturer for brands like Forma, Gray-Nicolls and Kookaburra, pointed out how even international players have been hesitant. "Some of them feel it affects their eye sight due to height, while some feel the grille is too deep and it touches their shoulder."
Desai points out the example of Sachin Tendulkar, who was reluctant to change a helmet that had been damaged. "Sometimes players are wary of getting out of their comfort zones and they are superstitious about a lot of things, including helmets. When Tendulkar was hit on the helmet by Shoaib Akhtar, I asked him to send the helmet back. He said he would like to continue using it since it was "lucky" for him. But when I opened the helmet and got it tested, its utility was over. The safety measurement had been reduced to 30%, so I had to convince him to stop using it and go for a new one."
Even with the new standards in place and all the suggestions recommended by Ranson and his team, Porter said the helmet will always be a vulnerable object. "This is not a specification that will guarantee that there will not be a problem if you get hit flush in the face by somebody bowling at express pace. What it is designed to do is provide a basic level of protection that all helmet manufactures should be able to reach. And then once they have reached the standard, we would say you have now got a helmet that is fit for purpose and you can try and get competitive advantage by making your helmet able to pass the test at higher speeds than the standard required." That way, Porter said, there is an incentive for the manufacturers to try and continue to innovate and make the helmets much stronger.
With the new standard adopted in the UK, the ECB and the PCA are shortly to undertake an audit of all manufacturers to ascertain how close they are to achieving accreditation. "It is not believed that anyone has completed the process just yet, but the plan is to move quickly to a position where players can be advised about which helmet designs meet the new standard," Porter said.
With additional reporting from Amol Karhadkar

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo