Phillip Hughes was hit on the head by a Sean Abbott bouncer © Getty Images
Phillip Hughes was hit on the head by a Sean Abbott bouncer © Getty Images

Suvajit Mustafi goes into the history and science of cricket helmets following the unfortunate and untimely death of Phillip Hughes.

Phil Hughes’ death has raised the decibel levels to reassess the cricket helmet. The incident also had led to a raging debate that batsmen in the age of helmets are complacent and less cautious than their predecessors.

In the era of Twenty20 cricket, where even tailenders launch attack the fastest of bowlers, it’s pretty evident that headgears have minimised the fear factor in batsmen. In modern cricket, the concept of ‘watching the ball till the last moment’, only remains the first chapter of the batting coaching manual, nothing more. Reverse-slog, upper-cut, Dilscoop and many more shots are innovations of the modern era that you won’t find in the MCC coaching manuals.

Hughes was a modern cricketer with a slightly unorthodox technique, but his injury was freakish. As Dr Timothy Steel, a senior neurosurgeon from St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, who treated the batsman described, “What unfortunately happened to Phillip is very rare. There are billions of balls bowled in a year and several injuries happen, but none of the neurosurgeons have ever seen an accident like this. The ball hit him behind the ear and fractured the skull. Not only it has fractured the skull, but it tore a vertebral artery.”

The modern game might have made the batsmen less cautious, but nothing is more tragic than the death of a sportsman while playing the sport. The calls for updating the safety equipment is thus justified.

Former England skipper Nasser Hussain is amongst the voices calling for improvement, “You have to think about ways of improving the helmet all the time, balancing protection with being able to move and see the ball.”

Writing in The Telegraph, Hussain added: “Putting bits on the neck is an area we’ve never thought about. We were always told to protect the temple, but were never really concerned about the neck. The instinct to get out of the way of a bouncer is to turn away.”

Hussain’s old nemesis, the former Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly, who was never comfortable against short-pitched bowling, recalled getting hit by a Brad Williams short ball, in a similar region to Hughes, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in the 2003-04 season. Ganguly echoed Hussain’s views, “You got to be very careful, especially with the helmets. The International Cricket Council (ICC) probably has to instruct the helmet manufacturers to be a bit more protective. The biggest problem with the helmet is the area between the neck and the shoulder. When you are hooking or late on the ball, it comes quick and it hits you on the face, for which you have the visor. But if it’s late, it hits you on the back.”

Former Australian off-spinner Gavin Robertson, who has been a part of helmet experimentation, has said that helmets were never designed for the modern, attacking approach. “Cricket helmets were designed at a time when it was very much a side-on game and [batsmen were] nowhere near as attacking as [they are] these days. I think we should always look at safety advancement in sport and if the standards need to be stronger then that’s a legacy from the terrible situation with Phillip Hughes,” said Robertson.

Over the years a lot of science has gone into the manufacturing of sports equipment. Perhaps helmet has gone through the most amounts of innovations as it protects a vital part of the body.

The batsman-helmet love affair dates back to 1933, when England’s Patsy Hendren designed his own head gear – a rubber hat with three peaks, two of which fitted over the side of his head to counter the likes of Learie Constantine. But the trend of wearing helmets caught on much later in the 1970s.

But fans and cricketers themselves over the years have been reluctant to accept the advances. English batsman Dennis Amiss is famously remembered making his appearance in the World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1977 with a customised fibreglass motorcycle helmet with a visor. The Australian crowd ruthlessly teased him, but the gear did help his teeth from getting knocked off by South Australian fast bowler Wayne Prior.

Last year, the world saw Michael Carberry coming out to bat in the Ashes in Australia with a space-aged version of helmet which drew a lot of amusement among the fans, many comparing it to Darth Vader.

Ayrtek’s version that Carberry uses may look peculiar, but it is believed to be the safest that the game has seen so far. The helmet made of carbon fibre is supposed to deflect a ball on impact, rather than simply stop it crashing into the skull.

Hughes was wearing a 2013 edition of Masuri helmet. A spokesperson from the company that manufactured that helmet confirmed that the new edition provides better protection. “This is a vulnerable area of the head and neck that helmets cannot fully protect, while enabling batsmen to have full and proper movement. The newly-developed Masuri Vision Series helmet, which supersedes the 2013 helmet worn by Phil Hughes, does afford batsmen extra protection in this region – and still allows comfortable movement,” said the Masuri spokesperson.

Whether these new helmets would have saved Hughes remains a question.

Rene Ferdinands, the head of cricket biomechanics research at the University of Sydney, believes there is a scope of improvement. He was quoted by BBC, “We believe there’s more that can be done. It is possible to offer protection that extends beyond the area covered by the helmet.”

The other idea that Ferdinands suggested was to wear a skull cap, made of composite foam, reaching beyond the area at the base of the helmet.

Brendan Denning, the managing director of sporting goods company Albion, said that new designs from Ayrtek and Masuri provide safer coverage. But like the other manufacturers, he too believes that the advancement in helmet technology is being held back due to the reluctance of cricketers who prefer a more traditional ‘look and feel.’

“The ability of manufacturers to innovate is reliant on players embracing new technology and they are very, very traditional in cricket,” said Brendan Denning, the managing director of sporting goods company Albion.

He went on to emphasise on the importance of enforcing the change for safety measures.

“We need to do something to enforce change, because a lot of it has been reluctance from the playing group in terms of embracing the new stuff. I’m not just talking on behalf of Albion, I can state this on behalf of the main manufacturers. It’s a tough gig trying to get them to [wear the latest helmets],” Denning was reported saying by Sydney Morning Herald.

A day before Hughes passed away, former Australian opener Matthew Hayden said, “The helmet is one of the greatest assets that a cricketer can have.”

It does remain the same way and in the coming days parents, coaches, associations and the players themselves will take this more seriously. It will only make more sense if ICC, rather than making it stricter for bowlers, invests and embraces the developments in player safety technology and enforce rules in those lines.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he find solace.)