During one of the warm-up matches ahead of the Women’s Cricket World Cup, India’s Smriti Mandhana was hit in the head with the ball as she batted. Mandhana was assessed by the team doctor and initially declared fit to continue, only to step down shortly after after another consultation.
A report by the International Cricket Council (ICC) found there was no concussion in this case, but high-velocity head-butts are not uncommon in cricket. A few days earlier, Ishan Kishan was hit in the head by a bouncer while playing for the Indian men’s team against Sri Lanka. Kishan was taken to hospital before being released, although he is still under observation.
While these incidents were fortunately not fatal, all head shots in sport now inevitably evoke memories of Australian hitter Phil Hughes. The talented international died in 2014 during a domestic match after being hit by a fast, bouncing ball that hit him just below the left ear, an area that was, at that time, not not protected by standard batting helmets.
Although the rules have changed over the years – bowlers are limited in the number of bouncers (short-pitch deliveries) they can bowl, substitutes for concussions have been introduced and equipment and awareness have improved – wounds and questions remain. Even in the last men’s Ashes series between England and Australia, there were two incidents where players were hit in the head (one seen in the Tweet below).
Since Hughes’ death, the ICC has made changes to the safety requirements of modern helmets, which in turn are a vast improvement over the heavy and bulky designs of 40 years ago. They are lightweight and can absorb energy from the ball, deforming on impact. But with fast and aggressive bowling still a part of the game, the development of safety equipment must keep pace.
Yashivan Govender works for Mantodea Tech, a Bavaria-based global research and development company primarily focused on intelligence hardware and software solutions. Part of this work includes research and monitoring of head injuries in cricket, as well as technologies, such as helmets, associated with injury prevention.
Govender believes head protection technology in cricket urgently needs improvement, not only because of recent incidents, but also because current helmets give players a false sense of security.
“Players are often limited in their defense by looking away from the ball when playing a short throw for example and exposing areas of the head that are not protected by the shell, visor, grid or head guard. neck of a helmet,” he explained.
“Examples of this would be ducking under a bouncer or turning your head away to avoid being directly hit by the ball, rather than using the bat as a form of defense. In a way, the game also enters in effect, as the player reduces the chance of losing their wicket by instead taking the impact of a ball with a body shot.
“Since Steven Smith’s injury in 2019, there has been little development in cricket,” Govender continued, referring to the concussion suffered by Australian batsman Steve Smith after being hit in the head by a ball.
Govender also has ideas, such as better-ventilated head protectors, custom-designed visors and even cost-effective solutions for single-impact helmet use, but says affordability can often be an issue.
While security is undoubtedly the primary concern here, performance is also affected. With support from Puma, Govender and his team hope to explore better technologies that turn a helmet into “a performance tool rather than just a protective device”.
In the British Medical Journal, a weekly peer-reviewed medical publication, an article was published in December 2021 on player behaviors and performance after helmet strikes in elite cricket. Authors O’Halloran, Goggins and Peirce found that it was helmet hits that did not result in a concussion that had the greatest impact on batting performance up to three months after impact.
Professor Dr Ali Irani, a physio for the Indian men’s team for 10 years, recalls many times when he had to deal with bleeding from his broken nose after bullets slipped through the gap between the visor and the helmet. Now he feels that more can and will be done.
“There is enough space for new technology for lighter, more productive helmets,” Irani told DW. “The box [a hard plastic cup that protects the groin area] is 100 years old. The helmet came 20 years ago,” Irani says with a wry laugh. “That tells you something.”
Irani was a little off his timing – the helmet first came on the scene in the late 1970s, mostly in response to the famous fast, immolate West Indies bowling attack of the time. But his point about priority remains. Helmet evaluation or consideration is too often a matter of consideration after an accident.
Role of the ball
Steve Turnock, CEO of equipment supplier County Cricket, believes that the design of the ball also has a role to play.
“The best balls always had five layers of cork and wool wrapped around a little center. It gave the ball a certain ‘gift’ that gave the ball a certain feel,” Turnock told DW.
“There used to be a British Standard test for balls but this was dropped as no one could be found to do this after the original company discontinued it. The current one-piece center is much less expensive to produce but more difficult.”
In the ICC rulebook, the only stipulation regarding the ball is weight and size. For the Women’s World Cup, the ball must not weigh less than 4.94 ounces (140 g) nor more than 5.31 ounces (151 g). For the recently played Twenty 20 Men’s World Cup, it is between 5.5 ounces (155.9 g) and 5.75 ounces (163 g). There is nothing indicated about the inside of the ball.
The main hope is that the only big tournament successes in New Zealand this month will be on the edge, not on the lead. Either way, it seems clear that cricket still needs to think about safety.
Edited by: Matt Pearson