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Beware Bouncers

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Ossie Gooding was a fast bowler from Barbados who played cricket for the army and for Hampshire’s second eleven in the 1960s. Then he played club cricket for Ashford, and, until he died in 2002, for Harold Pinter’s team, the Gaieties. He worked for the Home Office and when they moved his job to Newcastle, Pinter bought Gooding’s train tickets to London so he could play as often as possible. For many years, a Pinter XI took on the Guardian at a ground at Gunnersbury in West London. At the 1981 match, a Guardian batsman disparaged Gooding and his bowling. What he said, exactly, Gooding never let on, but it must have been bad: Gooding wasn’t vengeful or quick tempered but his next ball to that batsman was a bouncer which hit his cheek. Teeth and jaw were broken, there was a lot of blood on the pitch, the batsman went off to hospital – ‘retired hurt’ entered into the score book.

Gooding was a good bowler not because he often bowled bouncers – he didn’t, although he could – but because he was fast and controlled. He played into his sixties and was a legend on the club cricket circuit in and around London. I played for the Gaieties in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the opposition always asked us if Gooding would be on the team. We tended to play the same clubs years after year, and his presence, or the knowledge that he would soon be present, could alter the pre-match mood. Which didn’t mean he was unplayable – he wasn’t – but he was respected by those who played against him; he could wound you if he wanted to, and you’d have to be pretty good to know that he couldn’t.

There were no helmets in club cricket until the late 1990s. Now they’re more typical than not. In the professional game they’ve been worn since the late 1970s – a reaction to the very quick bowling of the West Indians and the Australian teams of that era. They’re not perfect; the cheekbone of the Pakistani batsman Ahmed Shehzad was fractured after he was hit in the face a fortnight ago; batsmen have been hit on the head without helmets and have usually survived. But you can see why they were introduced.

Tony Greig said he almost gave up playing cricket in 1976 after the series against the West Indies: ‘It was the first time in my career that I felt really frightened.’ He asked a manufacturer of protective equipment for people with epilepsy to make him a skull cap he could wear under his England cap. ‘It can’t be done,’ an Australian maker of horse-riding hats said in 1977 when asked if he could make a cricket helmet. ‘They want us to make something that can withstand half a house brick at a hundred miles an hour.’

In The Cricket War: the Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, Gideon Haigh writes about the moment in 1977 when the Australian batsman David Hookes was hit on the jaw by the West Indian fast bowler Andy Roberts. ‘And he’s in trouble,’ Richie Benaud said from the commentary box. Bruce Laird, one of Hookes’s teammates, told Haigh he’d never seen anything like it: ‘I can still remember the splinters of bone through the blood on the dressing-room floor when Hooksey was brought in. They were like little pieces of glass.’

There was a ‘new arithmetic’ to the game, the Australian captain Greg Chappell told Haigh. ‘If you wanted to make a century,’ he said, ‘you had to set yourself to bat all day and accept that you weren’t going to get any more than 70 to 80 overs. If you faced half those, you had also to realise that half of them you wouldn’t be able to score off. So you might get a hundred balls a day to score off.’

The fear of fast bowling got to one of test cricket’s most hardened players, Chappell’s brother, Ian. After Hookes was hit, Haigh writes, ‘despite his usual pre-match routine of half-a-dozen beers and an early night, Ian Chappell woke with a start in Adelaide after only a couple of hours. All he could see in his mind was being hit in the head by a cricket ball.’ Chappell explained to Haig: ‘As a professional sportsman you’ve got to have the ability to cancel that sort of thing out.’

Phil Hughes, the Australian batsman who died this morning, was wearing a helmet, and it hadn’t failed him; a bouncer hit him on part of his neck that would be difficult to protect without losing the mobility necessary to bat. It’s surprising that so few cricketers have died after being hit, though that says something about the eyes and reaction speeds of the game’s best players. David Hookes recovered in 1977; he died as a result of another kind of bouncer. At the end of a party he got involved in an altercation with security staff at a Melbourne Hotel in 2004; a punch was thrown, Hookes fell to the ground and went into cardiac arrest.

Comments

  1. philip proust says:

    “At the 1981 match, a Guardian batsman disparaged Gooding and his bowling. What he said, exactly, Gooding never let on, but it must have been bad: Gooding wasn’t vengeful or quick tempered but his next ball to that batsman was a bouncer which hit his cheek.”

    There is an atavistic dimension to cricket. The bowler who delivered the bouncer that ultimately killed Phillip Hughes was not trying to cause his death, but the point of the delivery was to cause harm or physically intimidate. Even the otherwise humane Gooding was intent on administering punishment to the Guardian batsman, according to Inigo Thomas. Interestingly, it was only in the 1930s that intimidatory bowling was introduced – by England in the Bodyline series – as an accepted and systematic feature and of the game. In other words, cricket without bouncers is possible; it is not a generic component of the game.

    Those who run the game must now try to wriggle out of a situation of their own creation. Atavistic practices are deemed a legitimate parts of the game – and the spectacle – but when an appalling event occurs, there is no public acceptance of even partial responsibility on the part of rule-makers.

    A parallel situation exists with sledging, which plays no useful part in the game but is nevertheless tolerated and excused, even though the hostility it generates has had minor geo-political repercussions, causing friction between Australia and India.

  2. Gunnar says:

    In relation to Phil Hughes, helmets and head injuries, it might be worth looking at ice hockey too. Helmets were made compulsory in the NHL in 1975, after which the number of head injuries shot up, because the head was no longer seen by players as a no-go area for tackles and sticking offences. And so it has continued, sadly. Could it be that, in cricket, bouncers are delivered with increased ferocity and precision at least partly because of the helmets themselves?


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