January 21, 2017

Might cricket ban close-in fielders some day?

The question won't sound so absurd if you think back to the history of helmet use in the game
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Australian fielders crowd around Joe Burns after he was struck on the helmet while fielding close to the bat in Perth in 2015 © Getty Images

Following Matt Renshaw's concussion injury, a respected cricket writer posed the question: will we ever get to the point where short leg, bat pad and silly mid-off are banned in international cricket?

In junior cricket in Australia that is already the case. I'm not sure if it is the same in places like India, where the art of spin bowling (and batting against it) will be poorer for such rules. More realistically, given the litigious climate we inhabit, can a fielder refuse the captain's instructions to field in a position that compromises his or her safety? Especially in professional cricket, where livelihoods are at stake, what are the health and safety implications of deliberately putting an employee in a dangerous position, knowing full well that serious injury is a possible outcome?

Barely 40 years on from when Tony Greig wore a motorcycle helmet while batting, it is almost as rare to now see a first-class cricketer batting in a hat or cap.

I have seen the helmet policy change radically - from wearing one being optional, to having to sign an indemnity form if you didn't wear one, to it now being a case of "no helmet, no play" at my local cricket club. This transformation has taken place in the time it has taken my son to progress from Under-8s to U-13s, accelerated no doubt by the Phillip Hughes accident (even though Hughes was wearing a helmet at the time).

In first-class cricket, the rules are so ridiculous that you are allowed to bat in a cap, but if you wear a helmet, it has to meet certain design specs.

Can a fielder refuse the captain's instructions to field in a position that compromises his or her safety?

I remain convinced that this blind faith in helmets is breeding a generation of cricketers who are sometimes technically inept, attempting to pull off the front foot instead of getting inside the line of the ball, or trying to play shots when ducking may have been wiser. In the last two weeks, at least four international batsmen have been hit in the head in Australia and New Zealand. Musfiqur Rahim was the most serious of these cases.

Even bizarre accidents can sometimes be predictable. Umpiring in an U-9 game recently, I refused to allow a batsman to face up because he was not wearing gloves. The opposition coach (also a parent) took exception to my decision, arguing that his son was prepared to take the risk. My counter-argument was that I was not prepared to put my fielders at risk if the bat flew from his hand on a hot, sweaty Brisbane morning. The acid burn of the wrath I incurred hurts less today as I view the replay of Peter Nevill's injury in the Big Bash.

A few years ago Queensland Cricket, in a noble but futile attempt to improve the "spirit of cricket" on the grade-cricket scene, ran a workshop where every captain of every club in every grade was forced to attend an event that tried to encourage a less abrasive, more sportsmanlike atmosphere. If a captain did not attend this workshop, his team lost points if he subsequently captained that season.

On the night in question, when each group was given a different hypothetical situation to mull over (for example: what do you do if an overnight not-out batsman turned up ten minutes late the next day because he was tending to his sick child?) I raised the issue of bowlers and fielders making threats against the batsman along the lines of "I'm going to f***ing kill you." My point was that even if it was not meant literally but taken to signal they were going to bowl aggressively at the batsman's body, once those words were said, if the batsman was actually killed (or badly injured), would there be a case to answer for premeditated assault occasioning bodily harm or worse? Would witnesses (fielders, umpires, non-striker) be asked to testify, under oath, as to whether they actually heard that threat being made, regardless of whether they thought it was meant literally or not?

Gautam Gambhir leaps to avoid getting hit by a shot from Michael Clarke in Delhi, 2008 © AFP

On hearing my question, the first-grade captain of another club stood up in disgust and said that if the evening was going to descend into complete farce with questions of this nature, he was taking leave forthwith. And that was the general consensus in the room: ridiculous question, it will never happen, can we move on to more realistic scenarios please? The hypothetical question I posed was never addressed. Many in the room thought I had pushed credibility too far.

Sadly, vindication is often a dish served cold, but it has a sour aftertaste. It wasn't long before we had the coronial inquest into the death of Hughes, and many of those same questions were posed by the coroner, Michael Barnes. We never quite got to the bottom of the matter, but the coroner was sufficiently unconvinced to note: "The repeated denials of any sledging having occurred in the game in which Phillip Hughes was injured were difficult to accept. Hopefully the focus on this unsavoury aspect of the incident may cause those who claim to love the game to reflect upon whether the practice of sledging is worthy of its participants. An outsider is left to wonder why such a beautiful game would need such an ugly underside."

So what's next? Players (employees) taking legal action against selectors for unfair recruitment policies? Suing your cricket board for making you play while injured? Been there, done that, thanks Nathan Bracken!

Can a batsman who has scored more runs in first-class cricket (Callum Ferguson, for example) make a case for unfair dismissal or discrimination if they jettison him after just one Test for an X-factor cricketer (Nic Maddinson) whose numbers don't quite match up and who is given three Tests? Ridiculous? Yes. Possible? Yes.

No bat pad? No leg slip? It might be a bridge too far. It will change the face of cricket forever, of course. But it won't be the first time that an outlandish suggestion morphs into an everyday reality.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cricfan00788021 on January 24, 2017, 8:05 GMT

    All the evolution in cricket is for the batsman now. All the matter discuss in the above article is self explanatory. No such thing will come in to play ever. So, fielder will come as close as possible to the pitch but new fielding gears can be introduce to minimize the impact.

  • UpaliWeerasinghe on January 24, 2017, 6:04 GMT

    Sport is for the people. Any sport or a part of it if it endangers life should be banned. Anyway as long as we allow boxing we can play cricket as we play now.

  • SG70 on January 23, 2017, 17:46 GMT

    @BRAHMS

    I suggest you look at some actual footage of Tyson and Trueman instead of going by notoriously un-reliable verbal accounts. Very easy to access these days on youtube. Once you watch those it is very obviously clear that they were nowhere near the modern day express bowlers.

  • McGorium on January 23, 2017, 17:39 GMT

    @INSWING : Either that, or make the ball lighter and/or softer. Sure, cricket will be different, but it's never been the same, has it? How many test batsmen played reverse sweeps or ramp shots in the 1970s?

  • McGorium on January 23, 2017, 16:58 GMT

    @SAMROY: Boxing, yes. It's a blood sport with but a shroud of respectability from the use of gloves (bare-knuckle boxing is illegal). The idea of two people pummeling each other for public entertainment and corporate profit is barbaric, not to mention giving each other chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). See Mohd Ali in his later years. Soccer: If the deaths can be traced to a particular activity in soccer (as opposed to freak collisions between players) then those activities need to be added to the yellow/red card list. Junior soccer in many places have banned heading due to the CTE problem.

    For professional sport (i.e. people paid to play to entertain others and make money for the organizers), the question is a moral one: does one entertain oneself or enrich oneself at the cost of life, health, and safety of another? Individuals may choose to hurt themselves; that's their right, and at amateur level, fine. For another to derive profit/entertainment from that pain?

  • Nagabhushana on January 23, 2017, 15:15 GMT

    if so they have to ban spinners too can they???

  • inswing on January 23, 2017, 15:12 GMT

    Close in fidelers dying to getting a serious injury is a very rare occurrence. It has about the same frequency as injuries to batsmen or to outfielders. Close in fielders cannot be banned any more than batting can be banned, or fast bowling can be banned, or fielding can be banned. The most dangerous aspect of cricket is an express fast bowler bowling short balls. That should be banned first, if anyone is truly concerned about safety. Somehow that is never suggested. This seems more like an attempt to hurt spin bowling, so teams that cannot play spin benefit.

  • Nutcutlet on January 23, 2017, 10:48 GMT

    Those fast bowlers of yesteryear weren't quick - not compared with the supreme speedsters of today! ( BTW, how many of today's crop are really really fast? Three or four at most! ) Well, there is no way of knowing the absolute truth of it. Truth seems to be mutable these days anyway -people believe what they want to believe - whatever the source - and that is their "truth"! It is unhealthy to live in an echo chamber - you are not receptive to anything you find doesn't fit with your world view - just like the new leader of the Western world! So, no, I'm going to waste my time putting my assertion up against yours. Instead, I will suggest that protective equipment has removed the basic precept of batting: watch the ball. Unsurprisingly, batsmen now turn away - and thus open themselves up to possible serious injury. And cricket is a game where you can get hurt. But road traffic accidents cause millions more deaths. Accept what is: take sensible precautions!

  • Jim725 on January 23, 2017, 10:25 GMT

    From my observation of close-in fielders over the years, they are hit mostly at their back. The reason being the first reaction when being hit in their direction is to turn back - so many instances when the ball has hit their back and popped up. So I think some sort of protection on their back and especially the neck area should be a good option. Regarding the new helmet rule, it seems ridiculous to me that batsman can take guard without having one but if they chose to have one, it should meet specific guidelines. Please make it mandatory in the first place. It is no more 'manly' (or for that matter scoring points over opposition) to face the bowlers without a headgear. Gone are those days of Viv and Sunny. Look at SRT's career - does one remember seeing him without the helmet?

  • SamRoy on January 23, 2017, 9:19 GMT

    Many people have died playing football (soccer) a lot more than people who have died playing cricket. So should we ban soccer or for that matter boxing?

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