The recent serious injury to Australia’s outstanding batsman Steve Smith caused by a ferocious bumper from speedster Jofra Archer in the Second Ashes Test at Lords should have raised concerns about the status of cricket’s law against intimidation. I discuss why they and similar incidents didn’t and why they should.
As the excitement of the astonishing climax to the Third Ashes Test subsides a little, it’s important to raise an undiscussed question posed in part by what caused Steve Smith’s significant absence from the match.
The felling of Smith in the previous Test by what was widely described as a “vicious” bouncer aimed at his upper body was only the latest distressing episode that should give rise to an urgent moral and regulatory question about the rules of cricket. Earlier this year, watching the Australia v Sri Lanka Test in Canberra, I began to wonder whether I was wrong in thinking that the rules of cricket prohibited and punished intimidatory bowling. The Steve Smith incident had me wondering again.
In February, the Australian fast bowling barrage of persistent bumpers put one Sri Lankan batter in hospital after a sickening blow to the helmeted head alarmingly similar to the blow that killed Philip Hughes. Fortunately there were no fatal effects this time, but then in the second innings another Sri Lankan batter had to retire hurt after a blow to the head and couldn’t bat again. It seemed obvious to me that the Australian fast bowlers were regularly bouncing the batters with intimidatory intent.
Similarly in the recently completed Ashes Test at Lord’s both the Australian fast bowlers and the English, most dramatically and dangerously Jofra Archer, pursued the same intimidatory tactic. In Archer’s case his bouncers injured Smith seriously on two occasions, the second sending him to hospital, and effectively put him out of the match and the next one with concussion caused by a dreadful blow to the neck which again produced memories of the fatal blow that killed Philip Hughes. Indeed, Smith has now testified that those memories assailed him as he fell to the ground. Blows to the helmet continued throughout the just completed Third Test.
Seeking answers, I consulted the hallowed laws of cricket to find that they state that “the bowling of fast short pitched balls is unfair if, in the opinion of the Umpire at the Bowler’s end, it constitutes an attempt to intimidate the Striker” (law 42.8) The OED definition of “intimidate” reads in part and most importantly: “To render timid, to inspire with fear”. It seems clear enough that a primary purpose of at least the frequent deployment of the bouncer has such an intent, so why are the umpires silent on the matter?
Claims of intimidation are seldom made these days and never by umpires, but when they are made the dismissive answer usually claims that the bowler has no intention of frightening the batsman which is what intimidation requires. How so? Well, the defence runs, the bowler merely wants to drive the batsman back into his crease so that in future he will be slow to come forward when the ball is full. Or perhaps along with that, the bowler only wants to hurry the batsman into a false shot and dismiss him.
No doubt, these motivations exist, and the occasional bouncer may be bowled solely for these purposes and without intimidatory effect. But a barrage of bouncers aimed at the upper body clearly operates by way of deliberately putting the batsman in serious danger of physical injury and thereby arousing the fear and uncertainty that goes along with the realisation of that risk. That is intimidation, whatever the ultimate end for which the fear is intentionally aroused, and listening to what fast bowlers and their colleagues sometimes say confirms it.
Jeff Thomson was probably exaggerating for shock effect, but his comments in 2013 reflect a truth about vicious intent. In an informal commentary Thommo was reported as saying of his and Dennis Lillee’s use of bumpers against the English Test side in 1975:
“Me and Dennis had a plan,” he began, “which was to kill the pricks. A couple of them had already gone to the hospital. A wicket goes down and out comes this little prick Fletcher (“prick”, it quickly became apparent, was a term of some endearment to Thommo, and he used it gently, almost with fondness).” (Jon Hotten for The Old Batsman, part of the Guardian Sport Network: Thu 20 Jun 2013 20.12 AEST First published on Thu 20 Jun 2013 20.12 AEST) https://www.theguardian.com/sport/cricket-the-old-batsman-blog/2013/jun/20/reminiscing-jeff-thomson-stories.
And again in 2013, Michael Clarke put it a little less drastically but in the same spirit when sledging Jimmy Anderson in the good old Aussie way: “Face up then. Get ready for a broken fucken arm. Face up.”
Add to this the incessant chuckling chants from many former Test or first-class cricket commentators on TV about the necessity and fun of bowling “chin music” and the presence of intimidatory intent seems well established.
Why then do umpires ignore it? Part of the answer is that the practice has become such an accepted a part of the game that it would be a brave umpire who went against the received “wisdom” and called “dead ball” with a subsequent warning to the bowler that a repetition of the offence will see him removed from the attack, as is mandated by the rules.
Clamping down on intimidation would also be resented by many fans, since dangerous short pitched fast bowling has become an often exciting part of the game and a significant tactic to test the reflexes and skills of the batters. Some might think that if you can’t handle the bouncer then that’s bad luck for you since and you shouldn’t be playing the game. There are even some outstanding batsmen who enjoy the challenge and resist intimidation, witness Viv Richards.
Added to this, the helmet and body padding have been introduced into cricket precisely to nullify the dangers of facing the intimidators. This is a better argument than denial of intimidatory intent, though it ignores certain facts.
The first is that the death of Philip Hughes shows that the helmets do not fully protect against fatalities and clearly they do not protect against concussion as recent examples show. Maybe more elaborate helmets would do better, but that is debatable and in any case, do we want batsmen to stagger around the crease with more and more cumbersome protective gear?
Secondly, concussion has become an increasing concern in sport more generally in recent years as the health damage that concussion can do and the delay sometimes in that damage manifesting itself have been stressed by medical experts. In various football codes, for instance, rules have been introduced and enforced against tackling that poses serious danger of head injury.
It may be responded that taking the scary short ball directed at the region around the head out of the game will reduce the weaponry available to bowlers and so take skill (and some excitement) out of the game. No doubt there is some truth in this, but compliance with the law against intimidatory bowling need not abolish the occasional tactical bumper aimed at the upper body for merely tactical effects like inducing false shots since the law’s remit should be confined to prohibition of excessive uses of the bouncer clearly indicating intimidatory intent.
The other option is to remove the intimidation law and admit that inducing the fear of physical injury is a legitimate aim for fast bowlers. This would have the effect of abolishing the hypocrisy of an unenforced law, but it would also cancel historic efforts to remedy what have been seen as blots upon cricket’s claim to sportsmanship, such as the Bodyline debacle. It might also cast some doubt upon recent handwringing denunciations of the win-at-all-costs culture that was said to afflict Australian cricket for so long.
(My thanks to cricket expert and distinguished author Gideon Haigh for helpful comments in disagreement with an earlier draft of this post.)
Tony Coady is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.