The safety question

The safety question

While it is better to be well-guarded, even the best equipment can't guarantee foolproof protection

The safety question

First comes the shock — and Phillip Hughes’s death has reverberated more widely than any previous cricket fatality. Earlier deaths, even that in 1998 of Raman Lamba, who played for India a little before such status conferred instant celebrity, were local tragedies.

Hughes, who had played for teams in England and India as well as Australia, leaves grieving former teammates and opponents across the cricket world.

Mark Wallace, captain of Glamorgan in the English County Championship and chairman of the Professional Cricketers Association in England, said of Hughes: “We’re not a very large family. He is well-respected and well-liked and we’re all thinking about him.”

Next comes the desire to stop anything similar happening again. Past sporting deaths have led to change. The death of Nottinghamshire batsman George Summers in 1870, at 25 years and 363 days a day older than Hughes, led to action about risky playing surfaces. Summers was struck on the head at Lord’s in London.

Baseball’s major leagues had one fatality, Ray Chapman, in 1920, and it led to change: The spitball was banned and umpires were urged to change the ball more frequently. More recently the death of first base coach Mike Coolbaugh in a minor league game in 2007 led Major League Baseball to mandate the wearing of helmets by first and third base coaches.

What might change after Hughes’s death is harder to see. Like the death of the Pakistani player Abdul Aziz, who at 17 in 1959 was struck over the heart while batting in a cup final, it falls into the category of freak accident.

Short-pitched fast bowling that could hit the batsman has always been regarded as a legitimate element in the game, particularly in times like the present when the balance between bat and ball has shifted toward the batsman. A player like Hughes, whose apparently unstoppable rise to the very top stalled in 2009 when English bowlers found that he was vulnerable to the short delivery, will receive more than most.

There have been periods of concern about the tactic. In 1933, Australian anger over England’s ‘Bodyline’ bowling in Test matches reached the level of a diplomatic incident. The fielding formations that served to make the tactics so dangerous were subsequently outlawed.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the West Indies pace bowling was no more vicious than previous dominant teams, but having four fast bowlers meant that the barrage was unrelenting. This led to a limitation on the number of short-pitched deliveries and the all but universal adoption within a few years of batting helmets.

England captain Mike Brearley, a former university philosophy lecturer who argued that it was illogical to protect your genitals but not your brains, was derided in some quarters for pioneering a helmet in the mid 1970s, but within a decade almost the only non-wearer was the West Indian batsman Vivian Richards, who played his last international cricket match in 1991.

Batsmen feel safer in helmets, but this is not an unalloyed benefit. “The better protected they are to the head, the more they seem to get hit,” said the former England fast bowler Mike Selvey in The Guardian, arguing that players now tried to hit deliveries their predecessors would have evaded.

Hughes was wearing a helmet but was struck on the unprotected area at the back of his neck. That area could be covered, but only by restricting movement to the point where it would be dangerous in other ways.

“There is also the issue of getting the helmet off in the event of an injury,” said Angus Porter, chief executive of the Professional Cricketers Association. “You may need to do that quickly for, say, mouth to mouth resuscitation.”

Wallace, the cricketers association chairman, said: “There’s a balancing act with any sporting equipment. It has to allow you to perform as well as providing a level of protection.”

As a county championship player since 1999, Wallace has seen the batting helmet evolve. “The basic look is similar, but it offers more protection and it is getting lighter,” he said. “The manufacturers are pretty cutting edge.”

Porter, who has a Cambridge doctorate in materials science, took part in the planning process for a new set of standards for helmets, which are subjected to the projectile test applied to baseball catchers’ masks and other exercises.

“We hope we’ve created sensible benchmarks,” he said.

But Porter added: “We wouldn’t want anyone wearing a helmet designed to the new standards to think that they were invulnerable. A cricket ball is a hard and potentially dangerous object, whatever protection you are wearing.”