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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Explained: Cricket’s dilemma over short-pitched bowling

The chorus to outlaw short-pitched bowling from cricket has been growing louder than ever before. What are the existing laws, and what are critics saying?

Written by Sandip G , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 24, 2021 10:07:17 am
Australia's Steve Smith lays on the floor after being hit by a ball from England's Jofra Archer during Ashes 2019 at the Lord's Cricket Ground, London, Britain. (Source: Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs)

The chorus to outlaw short-pitched bowling from cricket has been growing louder than ever before. The advocates of the ban point out the increased frequency of batsmen getting struck on the helmet or upper body, suffering concussions, some of them slipping into depression, and fast-bowler resorting to short-ball tactics against incompetent lower-order batsmen.

But the lawmakers of the game, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), after reviewing the existing laws defended the use of short-pitched bowling and the laws pertaining to safeguarding the safety of the batsman. “The committee discussed the Law and were unanimous that short-pitched bowling is a core part of the game, particularly at the elite level,” an MCC press release stated. Despite the recent verdict, the debates will rage on, either way, in support as well as in opposition.

What are the existing laws regarding the use of short-pitched bowling?

The rule-book has dealt extensively with the use of short-pitched bowling and formulated rules whereby they have put the safety of batsmen at the forefront. The concussion substitute rule is the most recent instance of a more sensitive approach to ensuring the safety of batsmen and taking head injuries more seriously. The beamer has long been outlawed, “bodyline” fields too. In international cricket, bowlers can bowl only two balls per over above shoulder height.

Other laws too are in place too.

The first four sub-categories of rule no 41.6 deals entirely with bouncers. Law 41.6.1 states: “The bowling of short-pitched deliveries is dangerous if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, taking into consideration the skill of the striker, by their speed, length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on him/her.”

The next one reads: “The bowler’s end umpire may consider that the bowling of short-pitched deliveries is unfair if they repeatedly pass above head height of the striker standing upright.” The next two sub-clauses hand umpires the authority to signal no-ball if “short-pitched deliveries has become dangerous or unfair”, and if the bowler still persists, he could suspend him the remainder of the innings. Of course, like several other rules in the game, the laws are subject to interpretation, but the law-book is sensitive to the potential dangers of short-pitched bowling.

What are the arguments of the critics?

The tragic death of Australian batsman Phil Hughes, after being felled by a bouncer that struck him just beneath his helmet, has made the cricket world increasingly fearful of the bouncer. Though such a fatal instance has not yet been repeated, the instances of batsmen getting hit on the helmet have increased. And each time someone plunges onto the turf after getting hit, there is a smouldering agony. Like when Jofra Archer smacked Steve Smith, who fell as though poleaxed on the pitch, at Lord’s in 2019. Several of his teammates admitted they feared the worst for a fleeting second.

Then, there have been concussion-induced depression, like it happened to young Australian batsman Will Pucovski (though he had concussion issues even before he began getting hit on helmets). Though Jonathan Trott was not concussed, he rolled into the abyss of depression after passing through a crucible of Mitchell Johnson-instigated short-ball carnage. There have been countless instances of broken limbs, fractured jaws, and disarranged faces. Cricket is not worth the violence, critics believe. It’s time to take stock of the game and tone down the violence. Especially, when it comes to junior-level cricket, where they are just learning to cope with short balls.

Why do they always bring up the rugby comparison?

Other sports have calmed down, they argue. Like the intensely physical contact sport that is rugby, which has banned high tackles in the sport. According to the new norms, “tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders,” is illegal and subject to a host of sanctions. The measure saw a 37 per cent reduction in the number of tackle-related concussion incidents in 2019, compared to the previous year. They are not planning to bring the tackling height below the waist level to further negate injury risks. The broader argument, thus, is whether cricket is worth risking life, despite massive improvement in the quality of protective gears and equipment.

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What are the counter-arguments?

Facing quality short-pitch bowling is one of the oldest and most demanding challenges in the game. It’s the ultimate test of a batsman’s mettle, and almost every other great of this game has been terrific players of the short-balls. Some loved to counter-punch, like Viv Richards and Brian Lara, for some it was the staple, like Ricky Ponting, some dealt those with monkish discretion, not because they could not but they did not want to, like Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar.

It’s one of the most riveting battles in the game — a quality batsman facing chin music, ducking, weaving, swaying, hooking or pulling. It’s the closest cricket gets to boxing, the nearest it reaches to be a contact sport. It’s as much as a test of the batsman’s skill as his courage.

They concur that excessive short-bowling is indeed dangerous, but there are laws in place to handle the extremes. But outlawing short-pitch bowling diminishes the quality of the game (forget charm and romance). It removes an integral weapon for the bowler, making the already batting-friendly game even more batting friendlier. Would batsmen be told to refrain from hitting straight back at the bowler through the air because the shot puts the unprotected umpire and bowler in danger?

The battle between bat and ball becomes even more lopsided, risking an onrushing of incompetent batsmen into the path of (false) greatness. Cricket cannot afford further dilution of its competitiveness, more so at a time when the quality of the game is not as heightened as it was in the mid-aughts or the last two decades of the twentieth century. It could even signal the slow death of the hit-the-deck bowlers.

What are their suggestions to reduce batsmen getting hit on the head?

One of the primary reasons batsmen are getting hit on the helmet is their tendency to hook short balls on the front-foot, often in line with the ball as opposed to outside the line, emboldened by advancing protective-gear technology. The former technique meant that if the batsman missed the ball the ball missed the batsman too. Moreover, most batsmen don’t duck or sway, and even if they are inept pullers or hookers, they seem obliged to play the shot. It provokes only disaster. Even the Hughes incident was down to his own misjudgement — he pulled too soon.

Pucovski is often caught in a dilemma between attack and defence. And they were not struck down by someone of the frightening pace of Patrick Patterson or Sylvester Clarke, but someone operating in the mid 130s. So, better discretion would have averted danger, harsh as it sounds.

Hence, rather than demand for a rule-change, extinguish one of the most thrilling facets of the game, young batsmen should be encouraged to develop a sound technique against short-pitched bowling. Suggesting the outlawing of short-pitch bowling is akin to chopping the head for a pesky headache. There, of course, is risk. Then, which physical sport does not?

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