For a non-contact sport, cricket has seen a number of serious on-field injuries and deaths. Among internationals in the post-helmet era, Raman Lamba and Phil Hughes died after being hit by the leather ball. Hughes’ death after being hit by a bouncer in the unprotected area below his left ear led to helmets with additional protection.
But with the kind of power-hitting seen in T20 cricket, the possibility of a player or an umpire being knocked down by a fierce stroke is real. In the current IPL, Punjab Kings’ Rishi Dhawan and umpire Bruce Oxenford are using customised protective shields. In Thursday’s match, a powerful swipe by Nicolas Pooran hit left-armer Khaleel Ahmed in follow-through on the collar bone. “You see why Rishi Dhawan wears the face mask,” Ian Bishop said on commentary.
Dhawan’s face shield
Dhawan has been running in to bowl his seam-ups wearing a face shield, a mask-like-object wrapped around his ears, with only his eyes uncovered. This is to protect his nose that was injured during training in the Ranji Trophy before the IPL. “I had to go through surgery which ruled me out of the first four (IPL) matches,” he said on the team’s website. “I was making an IPL comeback after four years, so it was a little disheartening.” The face shield may be offering him a sense of security while bowling.
His unusual new look has kept meme-makers busy. “There are a lot of memes. I have been watching. My teammates have named me Krishi,” he said, with a chuckle. Dhawan is not the first to bowl wearing a protective device. Otago bowler Warren Barnes had donned a helmet in a T20 Super Smash match in New Zealand in 2018.
Oxenford’s hand shield
Oxenford, a former Queensland cricketer and elite panel umpire, has been officiating with a hand shield made of a bulletproof polycarbonate plastic since 2016. According to Oxenford, the shield can also withstand a sledgehammer blow. Oxenford made up his mind when he saw fellow umpire John Ward hit on the head and get badly injured while on duty in India.
“The natural thing is to throw your hands up in front of your face and turn your head away when the ball comes at you,” Oxenford told Daily Mail. “I had people throw cricket balls at me from close range and it (shield) stood up to the test. The way I stand, it’s already protecting my chest and upper body and if the ball comes at you it’s really just moving it up a little bit and it covers your face.”
Oxenford had predicted that more umpires would take to it but that’s not been seen yet. “Paul Reiffel (fellow umpire) called me Batfink and Joe Root said I look like Captain America, so I’ve had that sort of stuff, but it’s (response) also been overwhelmingly positive.”
Cricket has been slow in acknowledging the threat of impact injuries. Players who show courage to play on masking the pain—like Anil Kumble bowling with a bandaged jaw in 2002 against West Indies and Gary Kirsten batting against Pakistan with a broken nose in 2003—are romanticised. ICC, the game’s governing body, hasn’t yet felt the need to make more protective gear mandatory.
“It’s only a matter of time before an umpire in an international or first-class match is seriously hurt, if not killed,” late Australian cricketer Rod Marsh had said in a lecture in 2015. “If I happened to be umpiring right now I’d be wearing a baseball catchers helmet, a chest pad and shin guards.”
While Oxenford is the only one to wear a hand shield, occasionally umpires have also been seen sporting a helmet. Paschim Pathak, who was standing at square-leg when Ward was hit and currently officiates in IPL, wore a helmet for a brief period before giving it up for discomfort.
“There has been talk of helmets but I don’t really want to wear one because I think it will restrict my peripheral vision and hearing,” Oxenford has said.
But it’s common now for wicket-keepers standing up to the stumps against spinners wearing a helmet. South Africa’s Mark Boucher and India’s Syed Saba Karim’s international careers ended prematurely after suffering severe eye injuries while standing unprotected to spinners, Imran Tahir and Anil Kumble respectively. Recently, spotting Sheldon Jackson don the gloves for Kolkata Knight Riders standing up to spin without a helmet, Yuvraj Singh tweeted, “Dear #SheldonJackson please wear a helmet when u keeping to spinners ! You are a very talented player and have a golden opportunity after a long time be safe !!!”