I'd like to take you down an alternative path, in a parallel universe, you might say. Or, as Robert Frost put it in his poem The Road Not Taken,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.”
Note the American spelling of ‘travelled’. Oh, how it pains me to spell it that way but to be fair to Frost, he was an American……
Joe Root and Ben Stokes take the field on the fourth morning of the recent Headingley Test to resume their unbroken partnership of the evening before. Their quest is to score the 359 runs for an unlikely victory, which would level the series 1-1. Three maidens are negotiated without mishap. The score remains on 156-3. England’s hopes rest largely on the shoulders of these two, arguably the best batsmen in the side. On the fifth ball of the 75th over of the innings, a short one delivered by Josh Hazlewood, Stokes goes to hook, mistimes his stroke and the ball smashes sickeningly into his jaw. He staggers, drops his bat and falls to his knees, blood seeping through his gloves as he clutches at his face. Immediately, concerned Australian fielders surround him. One or two turn away, visibly distressed. Someone – I shall not reveal his name – squats down on the turf and retches.
The England medical staff rush out to the middle, the raucous Headingley crowd is quietened, the intrusive eye of the television camera pans discreetly away, with the producer soon switching to a hastily summoned panel of studio pundits. The Australians retire to a team huddle, not wishing to appear callous but at the same time attempting to maintain focus and concentration, as all professional sportsmen must do.
At length, Stokes is helped to his feet. He is unsteady and has to be supported by his assistants as he slowly quits the field to sympathetic applause around the ground. “What’s that for?” he mutters to himself, “I’ve only scored 2 and now I’ve left my team in the lurch.” Nobody can deny the man’s courage but clearly he is in no fit state to continue. A trip to the A&E Department at Leeds Infirmary confirms everybody’s worst fears: his jawbone has been shattered and he will take no further part in the match. It is obvious to all – though nobody dare tell him – that for Stokes his season is over.
Meanwhile, back at Headingley, the stuffing seems to have been knocked out of the England team. Without their talisman, they capitulate to a limp defeat by 125 runs, thereby allowing Australia to retain the Ashes. The series is ultimately lost 0-4 and Joe Root immediately resigns as captain “to concentrate on rediscovering my batting form,” he announces in an emotional press conference. Chief selector, Ed Smith, admits he has a mighty big problem on his hands.
Of course, it never happened like that. The reason is the introduction of the helmet, the single, most significant innovation in how the game is played since overarm bowling was legalised. Stokes did not have his maxilla and upper teeth rearranged because his helmet took the blow (though he was lucky that one of the component parts that burst asunder under the impact did not fall on his stumps and cause him to be given out ‘hit wicket’). Batsmen frequently get hit on the helmet these days – rarely have I watched a day’s play in a Test when someone doesn’t get “hit on de coconut” (Michael Holding’s memorable phrase) – and old timers like me shake their heads and ask, why?
Let me go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of helmets per se; they have been used, predominantly in warfare, since the time of the Ancient Greeks and probably, in one form or another, even further back in antiquity. It is a wonder therefore, given that a cricket ball is hard and the head is vulnerable, that the idea of a batsman wearing a helmet took so long to catch on. It took Kerry Packer, the great innovator in cricket’s history, to take responsibility. He did not invent the helmet (that distinction belongs to the ancient breed of warriors known as the Hoplites) but he was instrumental in placing it on batsmen’s heads.
In 1977, the time of the Packer Revolution and World Series Cricket, Australia were playing West Indies in a Supertest at Sydney. David Hookes, the fair-haired pin-up of Australian cricket and poster boy of the Packer PR machine, was hit on the jaw by an Andy Roberts bouncer. On his return from Casualty at the local hospital with his smashed jaw wired up, he was asked by Packer, “Look mate, if I put you in a helmet, will you go out and get me a century?” Fortunately wiser counsel prevailed and Hookes remained hors de combat in the dressing room but the proposal was not as fanciful as it sounded. Soon, after hurried research and development, all batsmen were wearing helmets (except Viv Richards).
Not a moment too soon. Andy Roberts, more than any other fast bowler I have known or read about, hit batsmen with astonishing regularity, often causing serious physical, to say nothing of psychological, injury. I was fielding at cover when, playing for Hampshire against the touring West Indians in 1973, he hit the bespectacled opener Steve Camacho just below the eye, fracturing his cheekbone. I remember kicking dirt into the reddening patch on the crease as the bloodied batsman was led away. Camacho’s tour was over. Confidence splintered, he never played another Test. The list of Roberts’s bloodied and broken victims is terrifyingly long. So, the introduction of helmets is undoubtedly a ‘good thing’. Would I have worn one when I was playing? You betcha! And I know of no single contemporary of mine in the game who would not have followed suit. Except Viv Richards.
However, there is a law of unintended consequences from all this, which brings me back to my original point. Why do so many of today’s batsmen get hit on the helmet? The answer can only be, emboldened as they are by protection of the head – the fear factor having been largely removed – they have lost the art of watching the ball all the way, until the very last split second when they can jerk their head away. Barry Richards remarked to me during Ben Stokes’s magnificent innings….no, not at Headingley but in Cape Town in 2016 against South Africa when he scored 258, “The modern batsman certainly goes at it much harder than we did.” The implication being that more shots were played to the short ball than in pre-helmet days, because the worst a batsman can get is a bit of a headache rather than a visit to A&E. More shots means more runs means more excitement means bigger crowds and increased coverage. All good for the game.
But I do flinch when batsmen attempt to hook a ball instead of swaying out of the way and shut their eyes when they realise they’ve misjudged it, only to be dealt a clanging blow on the helmet. I just wonder what the long-term repercussions might be. And it is no coincidence that ‘repercussion’ incorporates the word ‘percussion’ (a strike, a blow, internal injury, contusion). Just add the prefix ‘re’ and you get my point.