In the conversation about the dangers of global sport, cricket is not the first (or even the fifth) one that springs to mind. Popularly known as “the gentleman’s game,” it generally doesn’t receive the sort of negative attention that sports like American football have recently.
But two shocking fatalities within the past week have thrust a global spotlight on the potential risks of a storied pastime that is only played regularly by about a dozen countries. A 60-year-old Israeli umpire died on Saturday after being struck by a ball during a match in the country’s Western city of Ashdod. Hillel Oscar, a former national team captain, was rushed to hospital but declared dead on arrival after the ball rebounded off a wicket and hit him in the face, according to the Associated Press. Unlike baseball, cricket umpires stand directly across from the batsman right next to where the bowler releases the ball — and without any protective gear.
But death or even serious injury to umpires are even more infrequent than to players, with only a 2009 incident involving Wales’ Alcwyn Jenkins the only such fatality in recent memory, according to the BBC. (Fractured fingers when the ball strikes the gloved hand gripping the hard bat handle are some of the most common injuries.)
Saturday’s incident came at a time when the cricket fraternity is still reeling from the sudden demise of 25-year-old Australian batsman Phillip Hughes two days earlier. Hughes was struck on the side of the head Tuesday by a quick, rising ball known as a “bouncer,” severing a vertebral artery in what many are calling a freak accident.
Although blunt trauma from a cricket ball is an infrequent occurrence and fatalities are even rarer, there have been instances of both in the past — including one with eerie similarities to Hughes. The inherent danger of fast bowling, where a five-and-a-half ounce cricket ball made of cork and leather is often used to directly target batsmen’s faces and bodies at close to a 100 miles per hour, has prompted a few rule changes in the past.
The most notable of these was the 1933 “bodyline” controversy between England and Australia, where the English bowlers adopted a strategy of bowling quick, short balls straight at the bodies of Australian batsman. The tactic caused a lot of bad blood between the two countries, and even spilled over to the diplomatic arena. The laws of the game were subsequently amended to restrict the number of fielders in the immediate vicinity of the batsman that made bodyline bowling effective, and the danger posed by a bowler was placed at the discretion of the umpire.
“The bowling of fast short pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler’s end umpire considers that by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing,” the current law states, with an addendum stating that “the relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration.”
The International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body, issued a directive in 1991 limiting the number of “bouncers” a bowler could bowl to one every six balls. That number was increased to two after players protested vociferously, but returned to one in 2001. But one in six deliveries is still a relatively high frequency, and the short ball remains a commonly employed intimidation tactic.
“I think the danger is for young cricketers to be steered away from being exposed to the short ball,” said Shaun Seigert, head coach of Australia’s Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy, in an interview with TIME. “I think it needs to go the other way,” he added, explaining that young cricketers who are not taught to face this kind of bowling have a tougher time developing the instinct to deal with it when they enter the big leagues.
Hughes’s death has also initiated a conversation around safety equipment in cricket, with the company that manufactured the helmet he was wearing stating that their latest version affords more protection to the area of the body where he was struck.
Helmets only became common in the 1970s, and are only generally worn by the two batsmen on the field and the wicketkeeper (equivalent of baseball’s “catcher”), although fielders placed standing extremely close to the batsmen at a position aptly named “silly point” sometimes don them. The other outfielders — unlike those in baseball — are not usually protected by any gloves or other padding, and dislocated fingers are another common occurrence from mistimed catches.
But many argue that no amount of protection can completely negate the risks of the game, and Hughes’ death — however freakish — serves as a warning against complacency.
“We wouldn’t want anyone wearing a helmet designed to the new standards to think that they were invulnerable,” the New York Times quoted Professional Cricketers Association chief Angus Porter as saying. “A cricket ball is a hard and potentially dangerous object, whatever protection you are wearing.”
Porter’s statement stems from the argument that helmets prompt cricketers to take shots and risks that they might not otherwise, not unlike NFL players hurling themselves into dangerous tackles that unprotected rugby players would avoid.
Seigert, whose students are just a couple of years younger than Hughes was, says that is a fair assessment. “You probably may not respect the short ball as you would if you hadn’t got a helmet on,” Seigert says, stressing again that the reduction in consequences that helmets afford may prevent youngsters from learning the proper techniques. “You tend to see a lot of players now that don’t really move their feet [to the optimum striking distance of the ball],” he explains.
The veteran coach says that although safety equipment is a factor that needs to be taken into consideration, there is no substitute for facing the short ball head on, both literally and figuratively.
“We tend to wrap our kids up in cotton wool, but is that really preparing them for the world?”