Cricket finally addresses a dark and murky taboo

Many good men and women from the worlds of both cricket and medicine deserve credit for the fact that cricket has finally addressed one of the oldest and grubbiest taboos in its history. Among them is Makhaya Ntini, albeit inadvertently.

It was April 1st,  2006, the second day of the third Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers. The hosts had made a respectable total of 303 (with a ‘dream team’ pair of openers in Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers) and now it was Australia’s turn.

It was a special day for Australia’s long-established ‘dream team’ of their own – Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer –  because it was Langer’s 100th Test match. Australia had already clinched the series, and this was their opportunity to do something special on a fast and bouncy Wanderers pitch, just as they liked it.

Ntini, never one who needed much warming up, delivered a bouncer first ball which smashed into Langer’s helmet with such ferocity it made everyone watching fear the worst – just as everyone did at Lord’s last week when Steve Smith was felled by Jofra Archer.

It was perfectly obvious to all concerned that Langer was significantly concussed, and he spent the next three days in the team’s hotel with the curtains closed suffering from headaches and nausea. Meanwhile, an utterly enthralling contest was building towards a thrilling climax and, on the fifth morning, Langer felt well enough to travel to the stadium with the team. They needed 45 to win with four wickets remaining – or three, actually. Or was it four?

When the eighth wicket fell Michael Kasprowicz walked out to join Brett Lee with 18 runs still required. Captain Ricky Ponting left the players viewing area and walked into the change room where he encountered exactly what he had hoped he wouldn’t but suspected he would. Langer had changed into his whites, was padded up and doing short sprints and stretches.

An increasingly furious row broke out with Ponting adamant that he was not going to bat and Langer insisting he was “fine”. Eventually, Ponting told his opening batsmen and old friend that, if he walked onto the field at the fall of the ninth wicket, Ponting would follow him out there and tell the umpires that he was forfeiting the Test match.

Kasprowicz and Lee had a bit of luck but played rather well to win the match by two wickets so we’ll never know what would have happened. But once the testosterone and adrenaline levels had returned to normal Langer was able to accept that his actions were irresponsible – to the game, his team-mates and, primarily, is wife and four young children. To many of us watching the game, the news that Langer ‘might’ bat did not seem ‘irresponsible’. More like macho bullshit.

Although the Australians are extremely good at macho bullshit, they do not own it – far from it. It’s a cricket ‘thing’. There are literally hundreds of examples of batsmen continuing their innings with broken fingers, dehydration, vomiting, cracked ribs, impending fatherhood and even bereavement. Mostly, you would hope, those conditions are not life-threatening. Blows to the head and concussions are life-threatening. They should be treated differently.

There are over 40 recorded deaths on the field of play – or soon after being carried off it – which can be directly attributed to a blow to the head or neck. They include, of course, Philip Hughes whose death in November 2014 started the long and embarrassingly overdue process of changing attitudes. The last cricketer to perish to a bouncer in South Africa was Darryn Randall who was struck by a bouncer in a Premier League match between Old Selbournians and Fort Hare University in Alice just a year earlier.

But there are many more cases of cricketers passing away days after a blow to the head or becoming incapacitated or suffering long-term mental side-effects. They are the ‘unrecorded’ victims, the ones cricket people don’t speak about – or didn’t used to. They are the “it’s part of the game” people.

Calls for short-pitched bowling to be outlawed are akin to banning boxers from throwing punches above shoulder height. If people choose to play cricket and box then they do so in knowledge of the inherent dangers. But that’s no reason the game shouldn’t do all it can to limit those dangers.

No wonder Justin Langer has been so sensitive – and sensible – throughout the whole affair from the moment Archer’s bouncer made contact with Smith’s neck. 13 years ago, he was all gung-ho and bullish about winning a Test match being more important than being a twitching corpse on a cricket field. Which was a bit silly.

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