Safety in sport has become very much in the public eye over recent years and cricket cannot afford not to take its responsibility seriously. Cricketers in the past have talked about danger as simply par for the course. Think Dennis Compton refusing to wear a helmet, Brian Close fielding under the batsman's nose, bodyline, the fearsome West Indies in the 1970s and 1980s or Lillee and Thompson. This rich history creates tales of dashing bravery that belay a more serious side of sport which is career threatening injuries that have robbed the sport of some of its best players too soon.
The World Twenty20 criket tournament will begin in March 2016 to the chagrin of the traditionalists. This follows the Australian BigBash and with the Indian Premier League also on its way, one would be forgiven for thinking this was the only format of cricket played. There will be many that feel the shorter form of the game somehow lacks the kudos of four or five day cricket and that Twenty20 is merely a sideshow to the real thing. The huge crowds that have flocked to these Twenty20 tournaments may suggest otherwise but an area that seems not to have been considered is how the shorter forms of the game restrict the chance of serious injury to the players. Let's consider this under separate disciplines:
The tragic death of Phillip Hughes highlighted that head and neck injuries, no matter how rare, have potentially devastating consequences. The restrictions that exist on short pitched bowling do exist in all forms of the game but the stricter enforcement of wides means that bowlers are less likely to resort to repeated bouncers in Twenty20, rendering head and neck injuries to batsmen less likely. A further impact of Twenty20 is that there can be a belief that extra pace on the ball is preferred by the leading batsmen which may act to reduce the amount of pace bowling they are likely to face, thus making significant injury less likely.
It is the fast bowlers who are traditionally associated with serious, career threatening injuries. The shoulder, knee and lumbar spine are seen as the areas of considerable risk and considerable research has been undertaken on how to protect this most precious of commodities. The restriction to four overs per bowler per match has the significant ability to reduce the strain on the body. A fast bowler may bowl 20 overs on one day of a test match which is five times more than they would in a Twenty20 match, more recovery time would also be guaranteed. The reduced workload would also benefit the spin bowlers who put considerable strain on their wrists and shoulders. A spin bowlers workload in a day of the longer format may stretch to 30 overs. The great Shane Warne managed to take 708 test wickets with a damaged shoulder, one might wonder what he might have done without the injury!
Rarely in Twenty20 cricket is a short leg or silly point seen. Having no close to the wicket fielders reduces the chance of being struck at close range. As with the batsmen, it is the head injury that is particularly concerning and there have been recorded cases of fielders killed or badly injured fielding close in. Slip fielders are seen but less so than in the longer forms of the game. Although not what could be regarded as a "serious injury", with slip fielding comes greater incidences of finger injuries which can be debilitating for a cricketer's career. The fewer the slips, the less likely that such finger injuries will occur. The incidence of eye injuries for wicketkeepers has recently become and issue and, with increased opportunities for wicketkeepers standing up to the wicket, vigilance will be needed on this potentially career ending injury.
One blog is not likely to change the mind of cricket purists but one would argue that cricket is at its best when the best players are playing and not in the hospital or on the physiotherapist's couch. I consider myself to be a traditionalist but I have a memory of hearing the late Richie Benaud once say that "no matter what format of the game, the good players will always be good and the ordinary players will always be ordinary". The changing world of sport means that cricket now has greater competition for attention. In the UK, there has been calls for the football season in junior sections to be played more over the summer months than the traditional winter. For the great game of cricket to flourish, the people have got to back it in terms of spectators and players and, particularly for aspiring fast bowlers, the risks may not be perceived worth it compared to sports elsewhere. By reducing the amount of four and five day cricket to increase Twenty20 may be a way of protecting our players and seeing their careers go on longer, to the game's great benefit. The risk of spectator injury, on the other hand, will go up!