As the great and good (ish) of the ECB lit a cigar and sat back with a glass of fine cognac to toast the new season, replete with self satisfaction at the revolutionary changes, or as some might say, the annual tinkering with the rules, little did they know what lay around the corner. Before they’d flicked the last of the ash of the old Havana, none other than the England captain himself caused the old boys to choke on the brandy.
Alastair Cook walked out to bat in the first County Championship match for Essex wearing his old favourite helmet. As did Jonathan Trott for Warwickshire. Game one of the new season and two high profile players were refusing to play ball, as it were. So what caused this open display of rebellion?
On the face of it the ECB has taken the not unreasonable view that it makes sense to ensure that player safety remains paramount and that safety equipment meets the highest standards. Anyone want to argue against that? No, didn’t think so. So the ECB introduced new regulations in regard to ‘head protection equipment’, helmets or ‘lids’ to you and me.
No half intelligent person who walks out with a bat in hand is going to object to wearing a piece of protection that will prevent them getting their skull cracked are they? Of course not, unless perhaps you are from the ‘In my day’ generation. Certainly not Alastair Cook or Jonathan Trott, or any others unhappy with the ECB’s new rules.
Two aspects of the new regulations seem to be the bone of contention. First is that the wearing of ‘compliant headgear’ is now mandatory for batting against all types of bowling; wicket keepers when standing up to the wicket; and fielding when in a position closer than 8 yards from the batsman.
Second, is that ‘head protectors’ – oh for goodness sake – helmets (!) must in both design and manufacture meet British Standard BS7928:2013 which has been adopted by the ICC as the international standard.
So why all the fuss? A combination of considered thought along with apoplectic explosions of outrage from certain quarters suggest the rumblings of discontent are about freedom of choice and the cricket authorities adopting a nanny state approach.
Let’s look at freedom of choice. The argument goes something like this.
It’s up to the individual whether he or she wants to wear a helmet. If they don’t, it’s because (a) they don’t feel it’s necessary e.g. a batsman facing a bowler so slow that a fag and a read of the Racing Post is possible before the ball arrives; or (b) if the individual is dim witted enough to risk getting brained, well, it’s a free country innit? Who are the ECB to tell players what to do? It’s ‘elf & safety’ gone mad.
These are the sorts of arguments that have brought forth one or two usual suspects such as Geoffrey Boycott, and an unusual ally for Boycs , Ian Botham. Geoffrey complains the ECB are turning cricket into a game for ‘cissies’; Beefy believes it’s a ‘big boys game’ (and presumably a big girls game too although the ladies may not welcome such a description) and that the football authorities wouldn’t dare tell Lionel Messi he had to wear shin guards (er…actually Beefy they already do – mandatory). I normally agree with these two – they’re from my cricketing generation but I’m not sure that I agree with them on this point. The fact they didn’t wear lids in their day is to my mind irrelevant. I grew up watching guys like this play, and the fact is for most of their careers helmets weren’t around or when they did arrive were pretty rudimentary affairs. There were some ferociously fast bowlers plying their trade so the top batsmen learnt that self preservation was a priority, and learned to watch the ball – I imagine as best you could – when Holding, Marshall, Lillee or Thomson were trying to knock you into the local infirmary, players were left ducking and weaving like a flyweight boxer. Hooking and pulling, for obvious reasons, was far less prevalent than today and only executed by the very best batters. Tailenders who couldn’t tell one end of a Gunn & Moore from another were generally afforded exemption from exocet deliveries via a sort of bowler’s gentlemen’s agreement, although I’m not sure Jeff Thomson signed up to it.
However, time has moved on. The problem is that the introduction of helmets and their subsequent evolution with faceguards and ever greater protection has developed a sense of security where batters down to number 11 don’t think twice about dealing with the short ball with an extravagant hook or swipe. T20 has encouraged this even more. The thinking is “If I get a clonk on the nut, it’s ok I’m protected.” Of course, sadly we all know that isn’t necessarily the case.
The fact is, I’d bet there are few, if any, top class batsmen today who could play quick bowling well without a helmet – why would they be able to? So freedom of choice – ok – but in reality players mostly wear helmets anyway in the circumstances covered by the regulations.
Next, what’s the beef (excuse the Botham pun) with the ‘compliant headgear’? Ah, this is the more interesting one. The ECB lists manufacturers of helmets that meet the new standard – no surprise all the household names do and there are around thirty different lids to choose from. They all look super. The problem is that the faceguard or grilles are no longer adjustable, they are fixed to a position where it is reckoned the ball cannot penetrate between grille and helmet peak. This will help avoid the sort of injuries suffered by Stuart Broad and Craig Kieswetter, the latter’s career being ended by such an impact injury.
That’s a good thing right? Well, no according to one or two high profile players the most notable of which of course is current England captain Alastair Cook. The key appears to be the fixed grilles do not provide the same field of vision as the old grilles that the batsman could adjust to suit their own eyeline. Ravi Bopara has said the same that in some cases the grille bar cuts across your line of vision.
The point is that at the highest level, where the stakes are now so high, players like Cook live or die by the runs they make and plays the short ball better than most. A split second is all they have to make the judgement of whether to play or leave the short pitched ball, and that is not going to be helped if your view is restricted.
Cook made a point of ignoring the ECB’s mandatory position in Essex’s opening championship fixture by wearing his old (non –compliant) helmet, which puts the ECB and England in a somewhat tricky position. It’s thought that the England captain believes he is the best judge of his own safety and has not been able to find one of the new helmets that he feels comfortable with. Alastair Cook does not strike me as the sort of bloke who wants to be a rebel or deliberately confrontational. His position though as England captain makes him extraordinarily high profile in any stand off on this issue. I suspect other players are watching very carefully as to what happens.
It may be that Cook will find a new helmet that works for him, England and the ECB I guess are certainly hoping so as the last thing they want is for him and others to refuse to conform with the new regulations at the beginning of a new summer. Hauling the England captain up before a disciplinary board would be a tad awkward to say the least. Quite where the PCA would stand on this is interesting as the new regulations were brought in after consultation with them apparently.
One other thought, and it is that the ECB might want to think about putting a rather large wad of cash to one side. Just suppose that Cook, and other players conclude they have to conform and go off in search of a new lid, only to find one that is from a different manufacturer to their current favourite. Some difficult meetings with players kit sponsors may well follow, and while I’m no commercial contract expert I imagine claims for compensation might also be a consequence.
Make of all that lot what you will. I think the ECB have brought in the new regulations with all good intent and for us club cricket oiks and youth players it’s the right thing to do. However, at the elite level some compromise is going to be required to avoid the whole issue becoming rather messy to say the least. Happy Summer!
Written by Bob Bowden (@54bobb)
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