The underlying theme of COVID-19 lockdown is the near-universal mission to save lives and promote well-being of the population. That being the case, can cricket administrators afford to be left far behind?
Yes, they have suspended cricketing activities in an attempt to fortify worldwide efforts to arrest the spread of the virus. But they need to do more, particularly with saving lives and protecting the welfare of their cricketers. In fact it would be better for them to be proactive rather than wait for a calamity to goad them into action. And what better time than the pandemic to show that their concerns go way beyond these grim days.
It is the ICC, in particular, and the custodians of the Laws of Cricket, MCC, who have to wake up to the fact that some of the game's long-held, unwritten conventions are being ignored by players in the quest for easy results. These acts have placed life and limbs of many cricketers under severe danger simply because they are ill-equipped to combat the threat.
For decades there was an unwritten rule that fast bowlers did not hurl bouncers at tail-enders, particularly fellow bowlers. Thus even in the non-helmet era, there was never a case of fearsome paceman Jeff Thomson hurling a bouncer at BS Chandrasekhar. Later, likewise, the pacy Malcolm Marshal who gave many top order batsmen a knock on their head, hardly bounced at, say, Dilip Doshi or Abdul Qadir.
But these conventions gradually went out of the window. There was this sickening sight of Anil Kumble having his jaw broken by Mervyn Dillon at Antigua in the West Indies during the 2002 series.
It was not as though only Kumble, a tailender, had the stuffing knocked out of him. Even some of the best batsmen in world cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Shiv Chanderpaul, Gary Kirsten, to mention a few, took severe blows on the helmet. In some cases the ball broke through the helmet and struck a severe blow to their face.
Here it must be pointed out that the bouncer was outlawed in ODIs for a long time. They were deemed no-ball, rather than wide, and as such runs could be scored off them. It was during this period that many middle-order and late order batsmen chanced their hand at opening the batting and some actually came good. Gradually bouncers were brought back into all forms of the game. However severe restrictions on the number of bouncers that could be bowled per over came into play.
The point here is that although top-order batsmen supposedly had the technique and protective equipment, they still needed to be shielded from the relentless bouncers that the West Indies quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Colin Croft/ Joel Garner unleashed on them. (One of Marshall's victims was Mike Gatting whose nose-bone pieces got lodged onto the ball. Even the West Indians said it was a sickening sight).
West Indies' formula of packing the bowling unit with express fast bowlers was gradually picked up by other teams with the result that even India, who traditionally banked on spin bowlers, now field a number of outstanding pacemen in the playing eleven.
Presently, teams all over the world were on the lookout for tall, well-built fast bowlers. The steep bounce, along with chilling pace that they brought into play, contributed to the physical threat faced by tailenders. Why, even better equipped top-order batsmen were being felled every now and then. During India's last tour of South Africa, Jasprit Bumrah who peppered their openers with bouncers finally delivered a frightening blow under the grille of opener Dean Elgar which prompted the umpires to take players off the field.
More recently, in last year's Ashes Test at Lord's, Jofra Archer's bouncer knocked down Steve Smith, who with Virat Kohli, is acknowledged as the world's best batsman. He was ruled out of the next Test too. His concussion substitute Marnus Labuchange too was struck on the helmet in that Test and the next.
Most cricket pundits believe that modern-day batsmen's trigger moment, which is pressing out with the front foot as against the olden-day technique of back-and-across is responsible for the number of hits on the head. That might be. But considering that so many top-order batsmen are frequently getting struck on the upper body and helmet it is time the game's administrators paid attention to the welfare of hapless tailenders, particularly those coming at numbers 10 and 11 in the order.
There is no way that a Bumrah or Yuzvendra Chahal could withstand a barrage of bouncers from say, Jofra Archer or New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner. In fact, even Steve Smith was a bunny to Wagner's bouncers. The skill of the likes of Bumrah and Chahal lies in their bowling and they need to be safeguarded to revel in that art.
At the end of the day cricket is a contest between bat and ball, not a bloodsport where bloodied and broken tailenders have to be carried off the field.
The game's administrators have outlawed beamers and intimidatory bowling just for this reason. It is time they showed the same concern for protecting the lives and careers of tailenders. Modern-day fast bowlers have shown that they will spare none, not even tailenders, in their hunt for quick results. 'Get out or be carried out' seems to be their motto. This needs to be quickly discouraged before things get out of hand.
Maybe ICC could well use these lockdown days to find ways to make the game safer for tailenders. A Phil Hughes-fate awaits some tailenders unless ICC acts fast. Wake up ICC!