Fast Bowling and the Fear Factor

A year or so ago, a Fox Sports show titled “Dangerous Balls” noted that what makes cricket balls more dangerous than baseballs is that while they are of similar dimensions and weight (the cricket ball weighs a quarter-ounce more), the cricket ball is more actively used for intimidation and possible injury. For in cricket, as opposed to baseball, hitting the batsman is not penalized. While there are restrictions on how many short-pitched balls you can send down in an over (and umpires will step in if they feel the intimidation has gotten out of hand), there is no penalty for sending them down per se.

A cricket ball impacting on the upper body can do severe damage, and given that no penalty accrues to the bowling side if the batsman is hit, intimidating the batsman with fast, short-pitched bowling is a time-honored strategy. As a small example, watch Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh of the West Indies give Robin Smith of England (a very good player of fast bowling otherwise) a severe working over.

But that’s not all, for even deliveries not aimed at the head can be very dangerous. Watch, for instance, Pakistani fast bowler Umar Gul breaking West Indian batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan’s foot with a yorker aimed at the stumps. A quick read of the appendix to David Frith’s The Fast Men reveals a gruesome list of injuries caused to batsmen over the years: broken jaws, teeth, forearms, elbows, toes etc. And the reason for this is quite simple: the helmet and sundry protective gear like forearm and chest guards are relatively new entrants to international cricket.

The Fox Sports show serves as a useful reminder that nothing has changed modern cricket batting quite like the protection afforded by the helmet. Batsmen today face fast bowling with more confidence, are quicker to get on to the front foot to drive, and can recover from a blow to the head in ways that batsmen of old simply could not. This has inevitably meant that batsmen with obvious shortcomings against fast bowlers, or who in the old days, would have had to give up the game just because the physical fear would have been too much for them, have survived and even flourished in the modern game.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? As part of the general trend towards making cricket more of a batsman’s game, I don’t like it. Bowlers need all the encouragement they can get in a world of flat pitches, heavy bats, and smaller boundaries. To reduce the armament of intimidation is to handicap them further.

But every time I think about the kind of injuries that have occurred in the past, I am thankful the helmet exists. The skull fracture that ended Nari Contractor’s career is but the most extreme example. And it’s not like the helmet has completely taken serious injury out of the game. In recent times, the Australian batsman Justin Langer suffered a concussion thanks to a blow on his helmet from the South African Makhaya Ntini, and the New Zealand batsman Flynn had his teeth knocked out by England’s James Anderson.

There is still plenty of fear in cricket. It still takes guts to stand 22 yards away from a man running in at full tilt, determined to send a hard orb at your head, knowing fully well that even a helmet will not prevent a blow that will probably require some sort of medical attention.

So even though the modern batsman is not afflicted by – to use Mukul Kesavan’s memorable phrase – the “spit-drying fear” of days gone by, he does not take fast bowling lightly. The modern batsman still knows fear. And that fear is the reason the fast bowler retains his centrality in the mythology of cricket.

Samir lives in Brooklyn and teaches Computer Science and Philosophy at the City University of New York; his academic interests include the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence and the ...read more

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