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It's time to improve helmet designs and make their use compulsory

Playing cricket without helmet is like walking around with a lightning rod and saying it’s safe just because the weather is clear.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Aug 20, 2019, 11.20 PM IST
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AFP
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Steve Smith lays on the pitch after being hit in the head by a ball.
BY SNEHAL PRADHAN

When Steve Smith was hit on the back of the neck by a Jofra Archer bouncer, the blow produced a dreaded sound: not the loud, harsh crack of the ball hitting the helmet, but the soft and deadly sound of the ball striking flesh. It was that gap again, the back of the head, below the nape of the neck, the same area that claimed the life of Phillip Hughes. As Smith let go of his bat and slid to the turf face first — just like Hughes — the world must have gasped for a moment.

Mercifully, the cost wasn’t that steep. Smith will only miss a Test match. But it was a painful reminder of the fringe dangers of our sport, and the shortcomings of cricket helmets. And so it is even more unbelievable that a few batters, among the best in the world, sometimes deem helmets unnecessary altogether.

We’ve all seen the likes of MS Dhoni and Glenn Maxwell bat without a helmet. Against spin, of course. No one is daft enough to do that against pace, however medium. But even then, playing cricket without helmet is like walking around with a lightning rod and saying it’s safe just because the weather is clear. Fortune favours the brave, but dark clouds of misfortune follow the fool.

Break cricket down to its most visceral: a sport in which a hard projectile is constantly aimed at the stumps, and the batter’s success depends on how well he or she can get a piece of wood in the way. There is so much that can go wrong. Imagine a helmetless batter hitting a spinner to long on, and sprinting back for the second as the throw comes in. On a good day, the worst that can happen is a run out. On a bad one, the throw can hit the back of the head. Let’s not even get started about deflections; the World Cup final showed us one with an extraordinary trajectory, but how long before we see a tragic one?

Every cricketer has stories about head injuries. While bowling, I once hit a helmetless batter on her forehead, drawing blood. Another time, batting in the nets, a full-toss slid off the back of my bat and hit my head. Fortunately, I had my helmet on. A teammate of mine wasn’t so fortunate. In a game, a full toss she missed kissed the back of her bat and hit her nose. A bloody mess, she had to be airlifted from Surat to Delhi and undergo plastic surgery. A few centimetres higher and she might have lost her eyesight.

It’s easy to write these off as freak accidents, but don’t. In November 2014, the same month we lost Hughes, an Israeli umpire was hit in the chest by the ball as it deflected off the stumps. He died. The next year, a young man died in English club cricket due to a similar injury. Concussion substitutes are a great step forward by the ICC. But they are a last-gasp resort to a problem that could be prevented by making helmets mandatory.

The ICC Regulations stipulate that helmets must be compliant with the 2013 British Standards, if a player chooses to wear them. It doesn’t matter if you have the best shield when you choose not to use it.

In Australia and England, it is mandatory for professional cricketers to use compliant helmets while batting or wicketkeeping/fielding close to the stumps. In England, the use of helmets is mandatory for Under-18 cricketers even in recreational cricket. A major review by some boards in conjunction with helmet manufacturers might see the neck better protected, with new helmet designs within the year. But in India, young cricketers can’t be compelled to take the necessary precautions. If they are asked to do, they are likely to say ‘Virat doesn’t wear one sometimes, why should we?’

I recently got to visit the Titanic Museum in Belfast, a modern outcrop built on an ancient harbour, chronicling the short life of the Titanic. Some facts I learned there are well known: the ship received multiple iceberg warnings, but still persisted with a high and eventually fatal speed. New to me was learning about the aftermath: legislation was put in place to ensure ships had more lifeboats, and that ice-warnings were taken more seriously. An iceberg-related tragedy of that scale has not occurred since. Cricket boards need to act just as decisively; concussion substitutes are the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but a lack of basic safety lurks dangerously under the water.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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