Sir Garry rated India's ace opener Sunil Gavaskar as the best of his generation for taking on the battery of West Indian quicks without the benefit of a helmet.
By Gulu Ezekiel
More than any change in law or any other piece of equipment, including hi-tech bats, it is the use of the helmet that has inexorably swung the balance of power towards the batsman in modern-day cricket.
Would the audacious shots unveiled by Brendon McCullum or Tillakaratne Dilshan particularly in T-20 cricket been possible without this essential piece of facial and skull protection? Highly doubtful.
West Indian legend Sir Garfield Sobers who did not even wear a thigh-guard during his glittering career weighed in on the debate—first articulated by Sir Vivian Richards--during a recent visit to India. No surprise that Sir Garry rated India’s ace opener Sunil Gavaskar as the best of his generation for taking on the battery of West Indian quicks without the benefit of a helmet.
Going by Sir Viv’s attack on “pampered” modern batsmen with their helmets and body armour, cricket has become a game for sissies since the helmets were first introduced in the late 70s. Richards was famous for striding out with the West Indies crimson cap perched imperiously on his head and proceeding to swat fast bowlers all over the ground. The pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson briefly rattled him Down Under in 1975-76. But a few sessions with a sports shrink and he was a new man.
Former England captain Mike Atherton while assessing the career of Sachin Tendulkar ruffled feathers when he claimed it would be “demeaning” to the masters of old to be compared to the Indian champion for one simple reason—Tendulkar batted throughout his career with a helmet.
Helmets were practically unheard of till Australia’s Graham Yallop used one for the first time in the Bridgetown Test in March 1978.
As Atherton put it so succinctly: “…those former greats stood at the crease in the knowledge that their next ball could be their last.”
While Yallop was the first to use the helmet in a Test match, it was England opener Dennis Amiss who first made jaws drop with his unique protective gear in the first season of Kerrry Packer’s rebel World Series Cricket.
It did not take long for many others to follow which is hardly surprising considering the season had barely begun when David Hookes had his jaw broken while attempting to hook Andy Roberts at the Sydney Showground in December 1977. Roberts led a galaxy of fast bowling demons who were given their full rein in WSC with its emphasis on pace, pace and more pace. Backing him up were the formidable and fearsome trio of West Indian trio of Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner.
Add to that the express pace of Imran Khan, Garth Le Roux, Lillee, Thomson and Len Pascoe and their unlimited usage of the short ball and one can understand why the batsmen of WSC feared for their lives and careers.
Early batting headgear was nothing but motorcycle crash helmets and so cumbersome were they that they hampered the movement of batsmen and their hearing as well. The result was a spate of run outs. Post-Packer, the West Indian fast bowling greats were joined by perhaps the greatest of them all, Malcolm Marshall and still there were no strict guidelines for umpires to restrict intimidation. Helmets were by now common usage but they evolved from the motorcycle variety to a slightly more streamlined style. The visor was still in usage but this impeded the vision of batsmen as it tended to get smudged and fogged over.
By the 90s the helmet minus any facial protection appeared with only the cranium covered. This resulted in bloody noses and facial injuries, notably to Mike Gatting in the West Indies in 1986 at the hands of Marshall and Sachin Tendulkar by Waqar Younis on his first tour in Pakistan in 1989.
By the 2000s, cricket had adapted the American gridiron football helmet with face grille protection and this has now become standard usage for batsmen, fielders and even wicket-keepers standing up to spinners.
Richards’ strong views on modern batsmen re-opened the debate on the pre-helmet era and the courage batsmen of yore needed. But it was somehow forgotten by both Richards and Atherton that the flamboyant West Indian strokemaker was not the last batsman to complete his career without ever resorting to the helmet. Credit should also be given to Gavaskar, the first to reach 10,000 Test runs. And it took Sobers to point this out.
Gavaskar made his debut in 1971 in the West Indies with a world record 774 runs in his first series when Sobers was the opposing captain. He scored 13 centuries against Roberts, Holding and co. in 27 Tests at the outstanding average of 65.45. No one before or since has come close to these marks.
It was not till the 1983-84 season that Gavaskar began to wear a fiberglass skull protector under his hat, something England captain Mike Brearley experimented with in 1976 against the West Indies. But right till his retirement in 1987, Gavaskar eschewed the helmet.
The pioneer in this regard was another Englishman, Patsy Hendren who wore a rubber head protector under his cap against the West Indian fast bowlers Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale way back in 1933.
The big question is: would Richards have been strutting helmet-less around the cricket world, hooking bowlers out of the ground and scoring tons of runs if he had to face his own fast bowlers from the Caribbean islands? That is something we will never know. But in West Indies domestic cricket, his record is quite ordinary. Playing first for the Combined Leeward and Windward Islands and then for the Leeward Islands, Richards recorded nine centuries in 54 matches (90 innings). This reflects poorly against his Test record of 24 hundreds in 121 matches and 182 innings. Even in county cricket while playing first for Somerset and then Glamorgan, his compatriots would take great glee in picking up his wicket on the domestic English circuit.
What is remarkable is that no professional cricketer was killed in the pre-helmet era. The worst injuries were to India’s captain Nari Contractor on the 1962 tour of the West Indies at the hands of Charlie Griffith and New Zealand’s Ewen Chatfield after being struck by the gentler pace of England’s Peter Lever at Auckland in 1975.
Contractor’s international career was ended by the blow and when I spoke to him on the 40th anniversary of the near-tragic incident he freely admitted he would have been happy to wear a helmet had they been around in his time.
Despite all this protection, if batsmen get hit even today and sometimes suffer serious injury it is no doubt because complacency has set in and reflexes have slowed.
Then again with the evolution of the cricket bat and with the modern batsman swathed in protective gear, the decline of the bowler has been more pronounced in the last decade than any since the likes of Bill Ponsford, Stan McCabe, Don Bradman and Wally Hammond plundered runs galore in the 1930s. The advent of Twenty-20 cricket, flat pitches and shorter boundaries all points to batsmen continuing their domination in the new decade.