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The odds are a bumper will kill

by Peter Roebuck

Hump ’em down and keep ’em short,
It’s the essence of the sport;
Bowl ’em very fast and short;
Make ’em bump, and that’s the sort;
Hit him body, head or wicket,
Tis the soul of Modern Cricket,
And if he tries to score from you,
He’s certain to be caught.

For a few dreadful moments on Sunday it appeared as if Test Cricket had suffered its first fatality. Geoff Lawson lay on his back, clutching his jaw. Fieldsmen waved frantically for a doctor, their concern evident.

Lawson’s pain was clear, A stretcher was summoned and the patient was taken away in an ambulance. Hours later Lawson was on the operating table.

Yesterday morning he said he was well, bore no grudges and wanted to play cricket at the weekend. Those first moments had been misleading. He was all right.

People should not forget their thoughts during those moments. A cricketer could have died. This fact must be faced in all its horror. Excuses can be made. Lawson is a timid player of the quick stuff. Bowlers can smell his fear as a shark smells blood and they attack it mercilessly. Foolishly, he was not wearing a grille with his helmet. Besides, this Perth is a bouncy wicket, cricket is a hard game and that is the way it goes. Clichés roll off the tongue with the smoothness of a Sinatra song.

But it will not do. Let us dispose of the misfortune that befell Lawson quickly, because it is not the real issue. Beyond argument we should not panic every time a Cricketer is hurt. Whatever the rules, this will occasionally happen, particularly in Perth, where the bounce is unusually steep.

In any case, we do not want a game in which cissies can do as well as heroes. Nor is it good enough to blame the West Indies for the injury. If England or Australia had a quartet of fast bowlers they too would use them ruthlessly. And neither of them would be as sorely provoked by nasty remarks from drunks on the edge of the boundary as were these West Indies.

Jimmy Cook batting

Jimmy Cook receiving a haircut courtesy of Carl Rackemann

 

These are distractions. Forget, if you can, about l.awson’s jaw. Recollect the bombardment of short-pitched balls dished out to Steve Waugh and Graeme Wood during the afternoon. Recollect the bumpers delivered by Merv Hughes earlier in the game, and conclude that far too many physically dangerous deliveries are being bowled in cricket. Not in every Test, but regularly enough to demand action. If a cure is not found the odds of somebody being killed will continue to shorten.

It is no good expecting the umpires to deal with this threat. Authorities who point fingers at them are simply passing the buck. Is Terry Prue, veteran of 12 Shield games, expected to tell Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards that his team is infringing some vague rule? Umpires do not want to brand themselves by being controversial. They know how little backing they might get. Accordingly, if weakly, they spend their time shaking their heads to lbw shouts and enforcing the pettifogging no-ball rule that has so affected the first two Tests.

No realistic observer will blame either the players for playing to the rules or the umpires for failing in their ill-defined duties. It is up to the authorities to reduce the peril by passing carefully constructed rules limiting the number of lethal balls bowled. If they do not, they will carry a part of the guilt when someone is killed.

There goes another one

 

What can they do? They could allow only one, maybe two, balls to pitch in the bowler’s half of the wicket in any single over. They could change the laws of field placing as they did after the bombardment of 1952-55, by allowing only three men to field behind point on the offside. Both of these ideas, and others, would at least reduce the odds without bringing the game into disrepute.

Fast bowling will continue to dominate Test cricket. Fast bowlers are getting taller and thinner and their numbers are rising. Because the game is changing physically and athletically so the laws must change if violence is to be avoided.

It is not much fun having a cricket ball directed at your head three times an over at 90 mph, even if the bowlers are Patterson and Walsh, widely regarded by armchair critics as not being worth worrying about. You only have to get one wrong. For those standing at the hot end there must appear to be more to worry about than at any time since bodyline. It is time to act.

Do not hold your breath. The poem quoted earlier was written in 1898. I fear for the Australians today.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald. December 1988.

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