The immovable object and the irresistible force collided this week.
The England Test captain, Alastair Cook opted to bat for Essex in his first championship match of the season wearing a batting helmet, a piece of equipment the design of which is three years old, that is non-compliant with a new safety standard as defined in regulations issued by the England and Wales Cricket Board last November and applicable to all men and women playing professionally under its jurisdiction.
Cook has trialled the latest equipment but is believed to feel the new design, which incorporates a fixed facial grille rather than one that is adjustable and a narrower gap between the top of the grille and the peak, impinges on his vision and is simply not comfortable. In other words, it is a distraction to him and, if one minuscule element of his concentration is disrupted then, at the level he plays, it could be detrimental to his performance. In the recent match he made a century in the first innings and was not out in the second as Essex beat Gloucestershire by 10 wickets.
On the other hand, the ECB is mindful of recent accidents to players in this country. The most high-profile was that Stuart Broad suffered in 2014 against India at Old Trafford, when a ball went through the gap between the peak of his helmet and the grille and broke his nose. Such was the shock of it that only now has any obvious confidence returned to his batting. Much of the work to beef up the regulations has been done in consultation with the England team’s chief medical officer, Nick Peirce.
A batsman does not score the best part of 10,000 Test match runs without having a stubborn streak and Cook, understandably extremely particular about his equipment, would not concede ground willingly. The problem is that his abstention places the ECB in a tricky position, for if the national captain refuses to comply with the new regulations, it would be hard to convince others (and there are some, who, as with Cook, find the new helmets uncomfortable or distracting, but are having to make the best of it) that it is in their best interests as well as a contractual obligation to comply.
There has already been an extended dialogue between Cook and his old opening partner Andrew Strauss who, as the managing director of England cricket, is his boss. The talk is that if Cook continues to defy the regulations he could be liable to some sort of censure through the ECB’s disciplinary procedure, although it would seem absurd if the issue is not resolved, or at least a compromise established, before Essex’s next county game at Hove this weekend.
The responsibility for seeing that the new regulations are adhered to falls jointly on players and those who administer their teams. However, neither the clubs nor the match officials have it within their remit actually to prevent a non-compliant player from taking the field. Certainly the umpires were not culpable in allowing Cook to bat in his old helmet. Instead the officials can, if necessary, refer player and club to the ECB’s disciplinary committee. The regulations have not been adopted by ICC though, so will not apply either to the Sri Lankan team or Pakistan when they visit this summer.
All of the England team have subsequently received an email from Strauss reminding them of their responsibility. It does not go as far as pointing out the possible insurance ramifications should any injury result from what might be termed wilful negligence in not using the latest safety measures to comply with the regulations. And it is hard to argue that when accidents do happen it is not the responsibility of the governing body to do all they can subsequently to minimise risk.
The dangers to players other than batsmen are already becoming apparent in T20 cricket in particular where power-hitting threatens bowlers, non-strikers, umpires and coaches who give throw-downs in practice, with the last two groups already taking to wearing helmets as a minimum protection. Wicketkeepers, too, must wear helmets now when standing up to the stumps, although there is a feeling that eye protection of a kind worn by squash players would be more appropriate and practical. But even within the ECB there is bound to be sympathy for Cook’s predicament as an elite player for whom the smallest detail is important. It is a fine line between understandable attention to health and safety and nannying.
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