Should Bouncers Be Banned?

The series between Australia and India has been something of a bloodbath. India have had to field a team in the fourth Test consisting of many players who weren’t even in contention for a place in the first game. The injuries which have befallen them fall into two categories: Strains, perhaps in part caused by restricted training due to quarantines, and broken bones caused by bouncers.

India have had five players either unavailable for selection or had to leave the pitch due to injuries sustained from very fast, short-pitched bowling. Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja were hit in the hand by the Australian bowlers, missing the following games, whilst a blow to the elbow kept Rishabh Pant off the field for an innings. In addition, KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal were unavailable for selection after injuries in the nets whilst they were (correctly) preparing for a barrage of bouncers from the Australians. If you count every time the Indian physio has had to treat a batsman who has been struck on the helmet or body by a short ball, I’m not sure a single Indian has been unscathed. Cheteshwar Pujara in particular suffered, taking 14 blows to the head and body in the series according to CricViz. He was hit on the head, hand and ribs four times just on the last day at the Gabba.

Given the apparent high risk of injury and teams’ inability to substitute an injured player (outside of a suspected concussion), you probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is a law regarding this kind of bowling. Specifically, Law 41.6.1:

“The bowling of short pitched deliveries is dangerous if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, taking into consideration the skill of the striker, by their speed, length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on him/her. The fact that the striker is wearing protective equipment shall be disregarded.”

This law is also included in the ICC’s playing conditions for international cricket. Despite this, I don’t believe that I have ever seen it enforced. If the umpires aren’t going to warn or penalise a bowler even after an actual injury has occurred, as has happened multiple times in this series, they probably never will.

One fallacy around this law is that it is intented to protect tailenders, whose lack of skill leaves them more vulnerable to this kind of bowling. Certainly the law mentions “the skill of the striker”, but that is only meant to be only one of several factors in the umpire’s decision. As the list of Indians injured on this tour demonstrate, with three batsmen and an allrounder, it is typically the players with the most batting ability who are injured in this way. The same pattern follows for players needing concussion substitutes in international cricket. Ravindra Jadeja, Rishabh Pant, Liton Das, Dean Elgar, Darren Bravo, and (of course) Steve Smith have all had to leave the game after blows to the head since 2019. None of these are unskilled batsmen. The only specialist international bowler to have needed a concussion substitute which I could find was Bangladesh’s Nayeem Hassan.

The simple explanation is that batsmen face significantly more balls than bowlers, and therefore are more likely to face these dangerous deliveries. It does also seem to demonstrate that their skill level in no way protected them from injury. Most of the bowlers involved in the incidents are capable of reaching over 90mph, at which speed even the best batsmen evidently can’t always cope.

The reluctance of the cricketing authorities to reduce the number of injury-causing deliveries seems incredibly strange to me. In every other sport I watch, every effort seems to be made to actively discourage players from injuring each other. In football, two-footed tackles or head-high kicks are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In rugby union, tackles which either hit the head or cause the tackled player to land on their head are a straight red card with a suspension afterwards. In baseball, pitchers are ejected from the game after either two accidental or one intentional pitches in the direction of the batter. Even in American football, which is more or less a full-contact sport, blows to the head (and many other ‘dirty’ techniques) are a penalty and often also result in fines and suspensions. It is a curious anomaly that cricket, which considers itself a gentlemanly and gentile sport, allows a bowler to send an unlimited number of 90mph bouncers at the ribs of opposition batsmen with absolutely no restraints whatsoever.

Making cricket safer for batsmen isn’t necessarily an easy problem to resolve. If you ban bouncers aimed at the batsmen altogether, that also potentially eliminates the pull and hook shots from the game and much of the incentive for having fielders on the leg side with it. You may be left with most deliveries pitching wide outside the off stump with packed off-side fields, which sounds like a very boring tactic for spectators to watch. Extending the concussion substitute so that replacements for any injured cricketer can bat and bowl as needed has the potential for abuse. Many Australians were up in arms when Chahal replaced Jadeja in a T20I last month because they felt that it had strengthened India’s team. Some even seemed to imply that Jadeja had feigned a concussion in order to allow the substitution to take place. If any injury allowed such a substitute, these controversies could crop up in almost every game.

On the other hand, the status quo may not be tenable either. If another high profile series is beset by avoidable injuries, the pressure to address this issue will continue to mount. Had India lost this series, for example, the BCCI might well have been pressing for some kind of action by the ICC. Perhaps the best way forward, at least in the beginning, is to enforce the laws that are already in place. Allow international umpires to make the decision on what is or is not ‘dangerous’ bowling, except with guidance that this should be implemented more often.

If that doesn’t work then more stringent measures might have to be brought in, and cricket would be a poorer game for it.

If you have any comments about bouncers, or Australia’s losing streak at the Gabba, or anything else, please leave them below.