No fairytale ending

A remarkable career cut short... Mark Boucher arrives in Cape Town in a wheelchair with his eye bandaged. The South African wicketkeeper was forced to retire from international cricket following the eye injury.-AP

It isn’t the loss of form or the lack of fitness or even the capriciousness of the selectors that worry a sportsperson as much as the thought of ending his career due to an injury.

Mark Boucher’s eye injury (he was struck by a flying bail during South Africa’s tour match against Somerset in Taunton) which ended his cricket career is a glaring example of why sportspersons feel so insecure about their chosen profession. It isn’t the loss of form or the lack of fitness or even the capriciousness of the selectors that worry a sportsperson as much as the thought of ending his career due to an injury. A career-threatening injury is the biggest hazard that a sportsperson faces. Many a career has ended in tears and pain, and it hasn’t been a pretty sight whenever that has happened.

Cricket is a game played with a hard ball that can hurt. Though no player has been killed while playing in an international match, many a player has ended his career following an injury that stays with him for the rest of his life. In the days before the helmets came on the scene, Nari Contractor’s Test career was cut short after he was struck on the side of his head by a short-pitched delivery from Charlie Griffith.

There is a misconception that Contractor ducked into the short ball, but the fact is different. The picture that was taken moments after he was hit shows Contractor slightly bent and holding his head, but when the ball had hit him, he was almost upright in his stance.

Contractor was undecided whether to play the ball or withdraw from the crease since a window behind the bowler had opened just as Griffith was about to deliver the ball. In those days there was no sightscreen, but a big white wall behind the bowler that had a window for the ground staff to take a peek at what was happening on the ground, especially to see if rain was around the corner, so to speak.

It took another 15 years or so before helmets were introduced but they were looked down upon with derision by a number of batsmen, who thought that only sissies would use them. What was difficult to understand was that if these ‘manly’ types were using leg guards and gloves, why were they doing so and not playing without any protection? After all, a blow to the legs or hands would only break bones and it wasn’t life threatening like a blow to the head. Mind you, not all blows to the head are life threatening, but they are scary to those watching.

Wicketkeepers too use helmets, especially while standing up to the stumps on pitches where the ball turns and bounces. On pitches where there is no turn and bounce, wicketkeepers do not bother to wear helmets. However, as the Boucher incident shows, it’s perhaps time for the wicketkeepers to use helmets irrespective of the nature of the pitch. The helmets, of course, will have to be specially designed because the main danger here is being hit on the face and not so much on the head. And even if the blow isn’t life threatening it could end one’s career. Former India wicketkeeper Saba Karim too had to retire after being struck in the eye by a ball.

In recent times we have seen the wicketkeepers using a new kind of helmet that covers the forehead and side of the skull because that is the most likely part that would get hit with the ball bouncing unexpectedly or one of the bails flying. But it still doesn’t offer the kind of protection a helmet should to the face.

There is no doubt that after Boucher’s injury, more thought and more research will go into the designing of helmets. Wicketkeepers need mobility and agility and that is why we see many of them using the kind of small inner leg guards that close-in fielders use, especially when they are standing back to the fast bowlers. In such cases, they don’t have to use the pads as much as they would have to when they are standing closer to the stumps. So, the helmets will also have to be lighter and not cumbersome to wear.

Boucher will end his career on 999 international dismissals, with 555 of them coming in Test cricket. And like Sir Don Bradman, whose career ended with a second ball duck and with his average on 99.94, Boucher will also be remembered for missing the coveted mark.

What both instances show is that fairytale endings are rare in international sport and even the immortals go out on a mortal note.