The threat to life was real. Every time a batsman went in to bat in the pre-helmet era, he was putting his life at risk.
When Nari Contractor ducked into a mean short-pitched delivery from Charlie Griffith in a practice game ahead of the third Test of the 1962 series at Barbados, the ball crashed into the area close to his right ear.
Contractor was rushed to hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Fortunately he survived.
Chandu Borde, who played in that game, said, “In our days, when we faced men like Wesley Hall or Griffith without helmets, we were not sure whether we would come back alive.”
How much have helmets and other vastly improved modern protective gear changed batting? The Hindu caught up with batsmen from both the pre- and post-helmet eras to gather views.
Alvin Kallicharran, the diminutive Caribbean left-hander, took on some of the quickest pace predators without a helmet in the 70s and 80s. In fact, he often pulled and hooked the lifting deliveries.
“I never thought about the dangers of getting hit on the head. There was no fear in my mind,” Kallicharran said. “Being without a helmet also meant that we relied a lot on our instincts and did not relax for even a fraction of a second. I never took my eyes off the short-pitched ball. Watched it till the last moment.”
The great West Indian said, “Judging the length is the key when you counter quick short-pitched bowling. And you have to be good off your back foot.”
Kallicharran was exceptionally fluent off his back-foot. His brutal onslaught on the legendary Dennis Lillee in the 1975 World Cup — he cut, pulled and hooked the searing short-pitched stuff from the Aussie — is now a part of cricketing folklore.
He was so confident of his ability that he did not don a helmet until he retired from First Class cricket in 1990.
Not surprisingly, Kallicharran has great admiration for Vivian Richards, that astonishing marauder who demolished the fastest of bowlers and the meanest of short balls with thunderous horizontal-bat shots.
Richards refused to wear a helmet and in the process showed the red rag to the fast bowlers. And when they bounced him, he deposited them in the stands, swatting the lifting ball as if it was a fly.
“Richards was the greatest, he could put fear in the fast bowlers, leave them demoralised,” said Kallicharran.
Anshuman Gaekwad knows a thing or two about taking on the quickest of bowlers on the liveliest of tracks against threatening body-line bowling, all without a helmet.
His blood-and-guts 81 in the infamous Test at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1976, in the era of juicy wickets and unrestricted bouncers, has to be among the bravest Test innings by an Indian.
Remembering that innings, Gaekwad said, “The West Indian strategy was to target our body. The ball was flying around on that pitch at Sabina Park. Michael Holding, bowling at his quickest, was bouncing the ball from around the wicket.”
Gaekwad took several blows on the body. “Not only were we without a helmet but we did not have a chest or arm guard and our thigh pad was flimsy.”
The courageous batsman said, “Frankly, I was prepared to die that day.”
He nearly did. A vicious short-pitched delivery from Michael Holding struck him on his left ear and left him unconscious.
His eardrum was badly damaged and Gaekwad had to undergo two surgeries before he could return to international cricket.
Batting legend Rahul Dravid felt helmets were enabling modern-day batsmen to play more shots off the front foot — the forward press is a more prominent feature of batting these days than the back-and-across set-up, favoured in an earlier era, in anticipation of the short ball.
Protective headgear, Dravid said, was also giving batsmen the confidence to pull off shots such as the scoop over the head. “These shots can be dangerous to play without the helmet.”
Someone who handled bounce with technical nous, Dravid said, “In the shorter formats where the pitches are often flat and the batsman knows there cannot be a second bouncer in the over, he can get on to the front foot now.”
He added, “But the cut, the pull, and the hook are important shots to counter the short-pitched ball and back-foot play is very important. You cannot do without it in the longer format.”
On whether swaying away from the line or ducking was a better defensive option against the bouncing ball, Dravid said, “It depends on the line. If it is on the off-and middle, you keep your eyes on the ball and sway away. But if it is on the leg-stump and coming into you, it is better to duck.”
The Karnataka giant said he had queried several batsmen from the past about playing without helmets and they told him, “We didn’t feel anything because we didn’t know what batting with a helmet was.”
He revealed, “I myself did not wear a helmet till my under-19 days. The pace was not serious enough.”
Dravid’s friend and former teammate, the gifted V.V.S. Laxman, has grown up hearing stories about how some batsmen, who made loads of runs in domestic cricket, would have been a different proposition in international cricket had they been wearing helmets.
Laxman said, “Not only were they without helmets, but the other protective gear was of poor quality, and there was no help from the sports-medicine specialists then.”
Laxman revealed, “I also asked Borde sir once about how they played hostile short-pitched bowling without a helmet. He replied, ‘I played beside the line of the ball and not behind the line.’ So they devised their own methods.”
On whether helmets adversely impacted back-foot play, Laxman replied, “No, you still need to play according to the length of the ball. That should determine your footwork. Back-foot play is essential.”
The stylist from Hyderabad said, “But the helmet alone does not guarantee total safety just like airbags do not provide you complete protection in a vehicle.”
Laxman cited the example of Phillip Hughes, the Aussie cricketer who lost his life after a blow to the head, despite wearing a helmet, in 2014. “It’s a tragic story. Even if you are donning a helmet, you need to have the right technique to counter the short ball.”
The genial Laxman is right. Helmet or no helmet, there is no substitute for the fundamentals of the game. Technique holds the key, along with courage and heart.