Last Saturday evening, when Luke Fletcher took a horrible blow to the top of his head whilst on his follow through bowling for his native Nottinghamshire against Hampshire’s Sam Hain in the Natwest T20 Blast, the immediate questions about player safety reared their head once again. Should this incident be seen as a freak accident, seeing as the odds of Sam Hain’s straight drive hitting Fletcher square in the top of the head are hundreds of thousands to one, and very few injuries of this nature have been seen in recent years?
Or, is this event a long overdue wake-up call for cricket? Fletcher this week has come out and said that for some time now, the Nottinghamshire bowlers tend to practice their trade in nets without batsmen in them, instead using cones as target practice to try all of their variations. He said bowlers at the club are already scared that “balls are coming back at a pace where you can’t react”. Graham Thorpe has also been quite open in recent months about the fact that he always wears a helmet when giving throw downs to England’s batsmen, a piece of kit he now describes as “vital” given the strength of the likes of Alex Hales and Jason Roy, and the pace at which the ball comes back at him.
Given these statements, is it any wonder that the ECB are going to look into options regarding bowlers wearing some sort of head protection when they are bowling? Obviously there is a long way to go in terms of getting the technology correct for it to be acceptable to both the players and the ICC, and nobody is expecting to bowlers to one day run in with a batting-like helmet on, however some sort of protection, perhaps in the rugby scrumcap mould, is surely going to be looked at.
If we were to move industries for a second, and look at this type of incident as a more general Health & Safety issue that could have been raised, the argument may well take on a different tone. Having spent several years working for large engineering and construction corporations, I know that if there was an incident in which an employee on a construction site suffered a near-fatal head injury, there would be a full-scale investigation, followed by a change in process safety. This would probably lead to safety equipment changes to avoid such an event happening again, and this would all take place alongside the employee probably filing a law suit. What would be totally unacceptable is the notion that it was simply a freak accident, with the odds of it happening again being so long that nothing needs to be changed. Employees would demand action, and especially when you throw in union intervention, they would most likely get it.
Cricket, and somehow sport in a wider sense, seems to be different. It often takes on a seemingly reactionary approach rather than a proactive one. No-one has had the balls to come out and admit it, but if someone with enough health and safety knowledge and foresight had been able to identify that prior to November 2014, a nasty blow behind a batsman’s ear could be fatal, and then been given authority to push through the helmet modifications we have seen since, the death of Phil Hughes might, might, have been avoided. Hughes’ passing was undoubtedly a terrible tragedy, but a freak accident it was not. Any injury sustained that could have been avoided by equipment changes brought in so soon after the event means that, with the correct foresight, disaster could have been averted.
If the ICC think that reducing the maximum bat widths for next year will protect bowlers from the onslaught of batsmen’s straight drives, they are surely misguided. Players these days are stronger than they have ever been, and with the T20 format becoming more and more infused with the aim to try and hit every ball as hard as you can, the risk factor of the Luke Fletcher scenario being repeated is increasing by the week.
If nothing is done, it is surely inevitable that another unfortunate incident will occur. If it does, after the warning signs we’ve now had, it is unacceptable for us to be able to call it a freak accident.
The ECB and/or the ICC will certainly have to look at changes. There’s no doubt that bowlers will push back hard on having to wear any sort of embarrassing head gear when they’re on the big stage, but it is surely now all in the name of progress. The wheels of change have been put into motion, albeit slowly, towards changes being made. Professional bowlers will be safer for it.