As the Border-Gavaskar series heads into its second Test and India lick their wounds from the Adelaide collapse, talk has turned to the use of the short ball during the tour. There has been a spate of injuries from batters being hit by bouncers; Australia’s opener-in-waiting Will Pucovski got one on his helmet that felled him, ruling him out of the first Test. Mohammad Shami’s fractured forearm, hit by a Pat Cummins delivery that rose sharply on that fateful third day at Adelaide, has ruled him for the rest of the series. Shami is the second India player who has been hurt with Ravindra Jadeja taking a blow in the first Twenty20 game.
In the limited overs series, however the wickets were flatter; the full extent of sting of fast bowling from both sides was only evident on the livelier Adelaide track. Pat Cummins himself was shaken up by Umesh Yadav on the second day with a rising ball which took the top of his blade to be caught for zero. When it was his time to bowl, Cummins treated Jasprit Bumrah to a lightning quick bouncer first thing on the morning of the third day; the Indian pacer just about evaded it. Shami was not so lucky. He committed to a shot by trying to make room to free his arm. It was a bad choice against Cummins. The fast bowler changed direction mid-action and followed Shami. Having opened his stance, Shami was a sitting duck.
In the second innings, the India pacers didn’t get a chance to have a go at the Australia tailenders but they did test the Australia top-order batsmen with the short stuff. Opener Joe Burns took a rough one on his arm. Indications are it’s going to be a bloody affair and more of the same is expected in the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“The rash of concussion subs resulting from blows to the head is on the rise and it’s looming as a major headache for cricket,” wrote former Australia captain Ian Chappell in an article published by espncricinfo.com. “The time is ripe for a worldwide review into on-field safety, including batsmen, bowlers and umpires, with batting technique a top priority. In conducting this review it would be appropriate to strengthen any law regarding the protection of tailenders in facing short-pitched bowling.”
Cricket being the “gentleman’s game”, an unwritten agreement existed between teams for long that bowlers with poor batting technique would not be targeted with the short stuff. With the advent of better protective equipment since the late 1980s, that accord has faded.
The ongoing debate began, in fact, during the second tour game, which was played with a pink ball. In this match, the Indian pace attack unleashed a barrage of bouncers at Australia A’s number 11, Harri Conway; a Mohammad Siraj bouncer hit him on the head, leading to mild concussion.
Former Australian fast bowler turned coach Geoff Lawson, in his column for Sydney Morning Herald this week, referred to the incident.
“The barrage at Harry Conway resulting in the second concussion replacement in the Australia A v India game should have been halted,” he wrote. “Conway does not lack courage but he is at number 11 for a reason and had not scored a run when the first of the short stuff came his way. Cricket has unwritten rules when it comes to wearing a badge of courage…the sport’s written rule mentions bowling that is “intended or likely” to result in “physical injury”, taking into account “the relative skill of the striker”. Maybe it’s time to revisit a law that has been in the books for decades for good reason.”
Most tailenders simply do not have the means to cope with sharp bouncers; Bumrah may have got a half-century in the warm-up game, but his skills with the bat are below average. Shami, Umesh Yadav, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood all fall in the same category. They are vulnerable to physical harm against the rising ball.
Former India pacer Karsan Ghavri said the No 9, 10 and 11 batsmen will have to learn to cope with it.
“There should be no holding back,” he said. “Bouncers are a part of the game, whether it is the opening batsman or No 11, everyone has to be ready to face them. It’s legal. In the war you can’t have a rule that only the higher-ranked officer will be targeted. The bouncer can be used anytime the bowler wishes.”
Chappell, in his column, did not go on to suggest limiting bowlers in any sense; instead, he too wanted the focus to shift to batsmen’s technique.
“We have to be mentally and physically prepared for it. If you don’t have the required technique, the protective gears are there, use them. Even the top order batsmen wear the arm guards,” Ghavri said. “If they are bouncing our batsmen we have to bounce their batsmen.”
Such painful blows can leave a mental scar on the player. England pace bowler Stuart Broad, after being hit in the face by a Varun Aaron short ball during the Old Trafford Test of the 2014 series, admitted that he suffered nightmares about it. Broad had top-edged the ball into the grille of his helmet and sustained a broken nose and two black eyes.
“I have had nightmares about it. I have had times when I have felt the ball just about to hit my face in the middle of the night. It has been quite tough,” Broad had said later while talking about how he had to work with a sports psychologist to try and move past the experience.
Cricket only recently introduced concussion rules; it’s first use was during the Second Test at Lord’s in the 2019 Ashes series, when Australia’s Steve Smith was hit on the neck by a bouncer by Jofra Archer in the first innings. He was later ruled out of the remainder of the Test with Marnus Labuschagne replacing him.
Chappell wrote that the concussion rule may tempt bowlers to “bombard the opposition’s best batsman in the hope of having him replaced by a lesser player. In this case umpires would need to remind the bowlers their job is to dismiss batsmen, not dismember them.”
“Quite often, a bowler at his peak bowls at your body and you’ve got to just work out a way to survive,” Steve Waugh said on The Cricket Show on Sky Sports recently when the discussion turned towards restricting or banning the use of bouncers. “It does take a lot of courage and a really good game plan and it takes skill. There’s excitement, that’s what Test cricket is all about…it’s part of the game and it’s something you have got to learn to play better.”
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