On 27 February 2022, star batter Smriti Mandhana got hit on her lower temple and ear during a warm-up match between India and South Africa before the ICC ODI World Cup. Shabnim Ismail's bouncer left a mild soft tissue injury on Mandhana's left earlobe. There was no concussion. However, to a lover of Indian cricket history, this would bring shudders as an infamous 1962 tour match comes to mind.
Nari Contractor was India’s then-youngest captain and the team was playing a match against Barbados. Charlie Griffith was bowling and in his second over, decided to come to his fiery self. It was the fifth ball of the over that has since become infamous. A ball that ended Contractor’s international career, and well, almost killed him. As Wisden reported, "Contractor did not duck into the ball. He got behind it to play at it. He probably wanted to fend it away towards short-leg, but could not judge the height to which it would fly, bent back from the waist in a desperate, split-second attempt to avoid it, and was hit just above the right ear."
Contractor started bleeding profusely from his ear and nose and had to be rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, he started throwing up, and was losing movement on the left side of his body. Two emergency operations had to be carried out. He lost a lot of blood and players like Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni, Polly Umrigar, and West Indies captain Frank Worrell himself donated blood (to this day, the Cricket Association of Bengal celebrates its Foundation Day as 'Sir Frank Worrell Day') to save him. Contractor gained consciousness after 6 days.
The Tragedy that Stunned Cricket
As many as 52 years later, the most terrifying incident in modern cricket history took place at a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and New South Wales. Phil Hughes, batting on 63, tried to hook a ball by Sean Abbott and got hit in the neck, just below his left ear. He collapsed on the field and two days later, died at the hospital. This was no Nari Contractor’s days of uncovered pitches where batters played with no helmets, nor was the bowler allowed to bowl as many bouncers he pleased. The incident stunned the cricketing world and numbed Hughes' friends like Michael Clarke and David Warner.
Following Hughes’ death, the International Cricket Council (ICC) brought quite a few changes to cricket, including the concussion substitute rule. Helmets became better with more area being covered now and pitches allegedly have become more batter-friendly. Surprisingly, however, things have only worsened in terms of batters getting hit on the head.
A day prior to Mandhana’s injury, wicketkeeper-batsman of the Indian men's team, Ishan Kishan, was rushed to the ICU after he got hit in the head during the 2nd T20I between India and Sri Lanka. In August 2021, Mayank Agarwal had suffered from a concussion at a net session during the men's team England tour.
In November 2019, two players from Bangladesh had to be substituted in a Test match against India as Mohammed Shami bouncers hit Liton Das and Nayeem Hasan on the head. However, no story is as painful as that of Will Pucovski. The young Australian opener was being seen as the next Ricky Ponting but the 24-year-old has already suffered 11 concussions! While he refuses to give up, authorities think he might have to retire like Derbyshire player Harvey Hosein who hung up his boots at 25.
Fairy Tale and Controversy
During the 2nd Test of the August 2019 Ashes, Australia's Steve Smith got hit in the neck by a ferocious Joffra Archer bouncer. Smith was in the form of his life and the lone fighter for Australia in the first Test. Marnus Labuschagne walked in as the first concussion substitute in Test cricket and was immediately hit on his grill by another Archer ball. Labuschagne, however, the perfect understudy for Smith, took on the attack and went on a brilliant spree that has now made him the No. 1 batter in Test cricket. His form has been unbelievable, for lack of a better word.
In December 2020, during a T20I between India and Australia, Ravindra Jadeja top-edged a Mitchell Starc ball onto his helmet. He wasn’t checked by the Indian team physio and he played three more balls after that, hitting two boundaries. In the previous over, he had grabbed his hamstring and the physio went out to treat him. In the break, however, India asked for a concussion substitute. Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal played as a sub and this was contested heavily by Australia, questioning whether there was any concussion to Jadeja and whether Chahal was a ‘like-to-like’ substitute to all-rounder Jadeja.
But Why Is It Happening?
Vivian Richards doesn't remember being hit on the head. Sunil Gavaskar, well, only once on the forehead by the fearsome Malcolm Marshall. Not that there was no helmet back then. In fact, Gavaskar got himself a custom-made 'headgear' in the latter part of his career but as an expert told him, if he had got hit on the head, it would have meant certain death because of that headgear itself! To cut the long story short, batters had to be quick to dodge a ball and keep their eyes always on the ball to survive (literally) against the likes of Lillee, Thomson, Garner, or Holding.
But does that mean batters' techniques have suddenly become inadequate? Gavaskar himself has a theory. While speaking to Sony Sports Network, the former opener said, "It's more to do today with the fact that everybody has got this front press, where they are technically moving forward, which is a little bit difficult, which is the reason why on bouncy pitches you have [batsmen struggling]."
He adds, "They are so much onto their front foot, they are not able to transfer their weight and then get out of the way. As a batsman, you tend to get a little bit locked." So, he talks of the "back-and-across" movement on bouncy pitches.
There is yet another theory. Helmets and protective gear are so advanced now that a batter doesn't have to think about saving their head and hence, the judgment to play at or leave the ball is taking a backseat. Often, the batter's initial instinct is to think about scoring runs and when they are in two minds or the ball is too high for a hook, they are getting hit.
Question is, will this lead to more restrictions on bouncers? Won’t that make the already-unfair game get even more unfair to bowlers?