Concussion-substitute: More questions than answers

Australia’s Steve Smith became the first player to be replaced under the new concussion substitute rule after the right-hander was hit below his left ear by a Jofra Archer bouncer in the second Ashes Test. reuters

Long before the concussion substitute – an option that allows teams to replace a concussed player in the playing XI – rule came into effect this month, the International Cricket Council had introduced the Super Sub in one-day cricket. Before the toss, teams had to nominate one player who could replace anyone from the starting XI at any stage of the game, depending upon their requirement.

The novelty, however, was scrapped within one year of its introduction as it was unfairly advantageous to the team winning the toss. The concussion-sub – which made its international debut during the second Ashes Test on Sunday – is bound to generate some debate, too. A concussion is a sensitive matter, and especially so for the Australians, who are still to get over the tragic demise of Phillip Hughes after being hit on the back of his head by a Sean Abbott bouncer during a Sheffield Shield game, just a few days ahead of India’s tour of Australia in 2014-2015.

Cricket Australia since then have made a strong pitch for concussion replacements, following experimental trials from the 2016-17 domestic season. The England and Wales Cricket Board followed suit in 2018. And, at its Annual Conference in London last month, the ICC stamped its approval of the concussion-sub for all formats of men’s and women’s international cricket and for first-class cricket worldwide from August 1.

It was only apt that Australia were the first beneficiaries of this new regulation when Marnus Labuschagne replaced Steve Smith, who was struck just below his left ear by a Jofra Archer bouncer on the fourth day and felt some giddiness the next day.    

Labuschagne, who nearly met Smith’s fate early in his innings, again off Archer, batted on bravely for a half-century that helped Australia escape with a draw after England had reduced them to 47 for three in the second innings. While the introduction of the concussion-sub provides a new dimension to cricket, it raises a few crucial questions as well.     

In the pre-concussion-sub era, England would probably have levelled the series 1-1 instead of trailing 0-1. While that’s the nature of the beast, why replacements only for concussions? Why not for other obvious injuries sustained on the field of play, such as a broken thumb or a swollen elbow?

Staying with the second Test at Lord’s, had Ben Stokes fractured a finger while batting in the first innings and therefore been unable to bat in the second, England would probably be going into the third Test 0-2 behind because the all-rounder, who struck his seventh Test hundred, revived the hosts’ second innings from 71/4. In that eventuality, while one team would have been a player short, the other, for all practical purposes, would have had a man-advantage, like in football!

And then, there is the issue of like-for-like replacement which is the sole discretion of the match referee. How do you define like-for-like? Batsman for batsman? Spinner for spinner? Pacer for pacer? Seems obvious enough? Assume, then, that India are batting first and Ishant Sharma is ruled out through a concussion. Can they then replace him with Hardik Pandya because even though he can be classed as a medium-pacer, he is also capable of getting into the team as a batsman alone? And if he is approved as the replacement, will he perforce have to bat at 10 or 11 as Ishant would have? The rule says match referee does have the authority to restrict a player from bowling or batting if he isn’t a like-for-like replacement but that’s bound to raise concerned team’s hackles.

Can you prevent Pandya from bowling if, for example, he were to replace Virat Kohli who is also classfied as medium pacer, however innocuous he may be with his bowling skills?

Obviously, the concussion-sub concept is still in its infancy, and such situations are bound to arise in due course of time. With what consistency the rule is applied will thus become a huge point of interest.

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