The game of cricket is evolving at a rapid pace. Many feel today’s game is more exciting than ever before, and the advent of T20 cricket has certainly captured a new audience on a global scale, and has secured cricket’s financial future, despite the naysayers. Even at recreational level, innovative new formats, such as ‘Last Man Stands’, have ensured that more people are able to play the game, even if they have limited time and family commitments, but with all these shorter formats now taking over, more aggressive “gung ho” batting naturally has come to the fore, which in turn has seen a sharp increase in the amount of head and face injuries suffered while batting.
To put it into perspective, in today’s cricket, “Dil scooping” a ball directly into your face is now a legitimate injury risk, and high profile eye and nose injuries suffered by the likes of Craig Spearman, Stuart Broad and Craig Kieswetter, when the ball managed to find its way between the gap between the peak and grille of their helmets, have proven that the dangers are very real. Careers, even lives, can be ended. These unfortunate incidents also brought into doubt the safety of the helmets that they were wearing at the time and how they could be improved in an attempt to prevent the same thing from happening again.
The first British Standard for cricket helmet safety was written in 1998. It took fifteen years, and numerous high profile injuries, such as the ones mentioned above, for the standard to be rewritten. The latest standard was introduced in December 2013, approved and published by the British Standards Institute after years of research and consultation with the manufacturers, the ECB, INSPEC, Loughborough University Sports Technology and the Federation of International Cricket Player Associations. Now adopted worldwide, in the absence of a global standard, it was a massive overhaul of the 1998 Standards (both Australian and British), which only focused on the strength of the helmet shell. The 2013 one sought to improve safety of the peak and grille, with the goal being to prevent the ball from being able to pass through the gap between the peak and grille at speeds of over 80mph. It also enforced that the grille be positioned further away from the face in an effort to avoid the type of injury that Ricky Ponting famously suffered in the 2005 Ashes Series, when the grille crumpled back into his cheek on impact and drew blood. The other area of concern was the shell strength, with a particular emphasis on the back of the head and neck area, which has since been addressed by new neck protectors, notably the new Masuri StemGuard, but I will focus on this a bit later on.
From this point forward, a professional cricketer cannot wear a helmet unless it has passed the 2013 British Standard (BS7928:2013). Any helmet made before this standard was published is therefore not fit for purpose any more, and whilst such helmets are still widely in use in the recreational game, they are now on the verge of being illegal for retailers like ourselves to sell.
Leading manufacturers, such as Shrey and Masuri, have developed a new range of helmets that comply with the latest standard, which are now readily available worldwide. But just because they are now the safest helmets on the market, are they capable of preventing further injury? Passing the latest Standard does not guarantee the safety of the wearer, but at least makes you much less likely to sustain injury whilst batting, close fielding or keeping wicket. I admire how the manufacturers are taking this matter very seriously and are working hard to improve their helmets, with millions of pounds spent on R&D and testing since the 2013 Standard was written. A major part of this spend was the introduction of the StemGuards from Masuri, designed to protect the vulnerable area of the neck, where Phillip Hughes was tragically struck last November. Essentially a light (military spec) foam and honeycomb plastic construction, the StemGuards were designed to ensure freedom of movement for the wearer, so they are protected without noticing it. Having tried on the new StemGuards myself, which simply clip on to the corresponding Masuri helmet grille, I can confidently say that they do not make contact with your neck at all, and are so light that you barely notice you are wearing them. Thanks to the StemGuards, the likelihood of another Phillip Hughes tragedy is slim to none, which is very encouraging.
Safety is, of course, a paramount concern, but if the user isn’t comfortable when wearing their helmet, it only half solves the problem in my eyes. Although I am a big fan of the comfort offered by their StemGuards, Masuri have come under some criticism as far as this is concerned with their new Vision Series helmets range. Whilst they may be arguably the safest helmets on the market, they are very heavy, and nearly double the weight of the old Masuri helmets. It’s fair to say that whilst Masuri have ticked all the safety boxes, comfort has taken less of a priority with the design of this range, and although many customers say the extra weight just takes a bit of time to get used to and then is absolutely fine, I personally believe this weight issue is the reason that some international players have recently made the switch from the Masuri VS Elite to the lighter Shrey Master Class Air, currently the lightest helmet on the market to comply with the 2013 British Standard.
As a long time helmet wearer myself, I am delighted to see such an array of safer cricket helmets now on the market, and it’s reassuring to know that I can now protect my neck as well as my face and head whilst batting. I will enjoy my batting more, it will give me more confidence at the crease – I may even take on the short ball now and again – which may in turn miraculously help me score more runs (anything is possible, I suppose)! However, I have concerns about the rising helmet costs every year and am worried that the manufacturers – especially Masuri with their UK manufacturing overheads – are pricing many would be wearers out of the market. In the space of just three years, the price of Masuri helmets have doubled. I understand that it’s not just the high manufacturing costs, but a myriad of other overheads that also need covering (R&D, testing, marketing, resource etc.), however the increase is a little on the steep side as far as I’m concerned and it, to some extent, defeats the object of trying to make cricket a safer sport to play. What’s the point of having the safest cricket helmet, if a large percentage of the market can’t even afford to use one? Masuri proudly state that none of their professional players get paid to wear their helmets – they actually have to pay Masuri for that privilege. Whilst I can believe this, I also believe that many Sunday cricketers wouldn’t be quite as willing as an England international would to part with nearly £200 of their hard earned for a lid! Yesterday’s announcement that the ECB are considering making helmet use ‘compulsory’ for batsmen and close fielders in county cricket, which may then ripple down into recreational cricket under the auspices of the ECB, have set the alarm bells ringing for some.
It’s less of a concern for junior players, as helmet use has been compulsory for anyone under the age of 18 since 2000, but the older generation, who have grown up without the need – or desire – to ever wear a helmet will be a much harder bunch to convince! Even if such a cricketer was willing to make the switch and bat in a helmet, would he also be willing to spend a three figure sum to do so? As helmet prices have skyrocketed in recent years, you will soon have no choice but to spend this amount on a helmet. Many recreational cricketers may not wish to swap their weather beaten club cap for a new helmet at all, regardless of the price. And how exactly could the ECB enforce this? This question remains unanswered, at least until a firm decision is made on the subject (apparently this will happen just before Christmas – we eagerly await it!)
Going back to the cost issue, perhaps a solution would be for a club or school to invest in a pool of three or four helmets – covering at least one of each size – which could then be shared around the team. This may work, but I, for one, don’t particularly enjoy striding out to bat in a smelly lid that’s just been worn by the sweatiest player in our team! Helmets are also a personal thing – everyone has a different opinion on their fit, comfort or visibility – so forcing someone to wear something they don’t necessarily like may affect their enjoyment of the game and their confidence whilst out in the middle. It’s far from an ideal situation. Still, I think the bigger issue the ECB have is convincing those who have never worn a helmet in their life to suddenly start wearing one. They have learnt to play without one and may well have learnt to watch the ball better for not doing so – their evasive techniques against the short ball are likely to be superior, which means they may actually be just as safe at the crease, if not safer, than the wearer of the latest Masuri. I, however, will always argue in favour of wearing a helmet. As a child, I was struck on the head by an errant throw whilst running between the wickets and have never not worn a helmet since. I have also witnessed teammates and opposition top edging the ball into their faces on numerous occasions, something which could happen to any batsman at any time, regardless of how well he watches the ball or how many years he’s managed to bat safely without a helmet. There is also that unexpected beamer to worry about at village level. For me, the pace of the bowling you face should never be the only consideration as to whether or not a helmet should be worn.
To sum up, I believe that helmets have become critically important in today’s cricket. So much so, I can envisage a day in the not too distant future where every single cricketer will walk out to bat with a helmet on, whether the ECB ends up enforcing this or not. I don’t think this is bad for the game, as your life is, ultimately, at stake. The dangers are clearly there, no matter what standard you play, and this should never be taken with a pinch of salt. It is serious business and should be treated as such. I have concerns about the price of your safety whilst playing cricket, but ultimately, you cannot put a price on your life.
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