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Cricket should discuss the bouncer more seriously

Jarrod Kimber in Cricinfo


The coroner's inquest into the death of Phillip Hughes should have been an opportunity for cricket to learn from its most public tragedy and ensure that the game was safer from now on. But because of the extreme hurt felt by the Hughes family, and the players feeling like they were on trial, what transpired did not benefit cricket or the family.

There is no doubt that the New South Wales team was trying to bounce Hughes out when he was struck fatally. There is little doubt, with some of the players involved, that harsh words would have been said.

Whether what Dougie Bollinger allegedly said was, "I am going to kill you", to Hughes or not really shouldn't matter. Bollinger is a joke figure, Australian cricket's doofus clown prince, and he is a former team-mate of Hughes'. No one in Australian cricket takes anything he says seriously. And while intent and words matter, what matters most is the ball that ultimately struck Hughes. That is the villain; that was the killer.

Hughes wasn't the last player to be subjected to a barrage of them, and that is what the inquest should have been about: how to make facing a bouncer as safe as we can make it.
There was talk in the immediate aftermath of banning the bouncer. It was an extreme reaction to an extreme situation. It was never truly taken seriously, and as the days turned into weeks after Hughes' death, they got quieter and quieter. Like many things in cricket, once the heat of the moment was gone, there was no intellectual conversation about the bouncer. We just went back to business as usual.

That was the mistake of cricket. Cricket as a business, as a sport, as a thing of love and beauty, has a responsibility to those who play it to take the bouncer conversation seriously.

Bowling is as quick as it has ever been.

Recently I've been involved in two conversations with respected cricket writers telling me bowling isn't any more rapid now than in the previous generations.

One argument was that bowling had always been fast; it had just never been properly measured before. That Fred Spofforth was quick, or Harold Larwood was quick. That explanation doesn't hold up when you think that overarm bowling only became popular in Spofforth's lifetime (even he started playing cricket as an underarm bowler). The original overarm techniques were actually side-arm, much like drunken versions of Lasith Malinga's action. So Spofforth's early tinkerings would have only been so quick.

The Larwood theory plays into the second conversation I had - about the old days, when players were amateur unlike today. These amateurs didn't worry about the next game, about resting themselves, about slowing down, and when their body felt right. They came in and bowled with all the pace they had. Part of the problem with that theory is that Larwood was a professional and played a lot of cricket. So were all the great West Indian bowlers. Many of them were overworked physically by bowling.

But really, the conversation was about the name that comes up every time people talk about fast bowling: Jeff Thomson.

Thommo was quick. Thommo would probably be quick now. And Thommo was so quick now that his balls travel through time and bowl out anyone who suggests bowlers are quicker now.

Whether it be Larwood, Trueman, Hall or Thommo, there is no doubt that bowlers from other eras have bowled quick. How quick, that is for drunken conversations with your uncle.

One man, with an incredible human catapult action, whose muscles seemed perfectly set up to hurl, might be the quickest bowler of all time. But not every bowler was like Thommo.

In the 1979 speed bowling competition, Thommo was 6kph quicker than Michael Holding in second place. That was when Holding was in his prime and Thommo had started to slow down after injuring his shoulder. Thommo's quickest was 147.9kph. He averaged 142.3kph while Holding's fastest ball was slower than that. Thommo was the only bowler clocked at over 145kph (90mph) in that test. The fastest of Len Pascoe, one of those tested, clocked more than 15kph slower than Thommo. Richard Hadlee was slower.

And while the speed gun technology seems to have evolved like fast bowling itself, this is the only guide we have.

So Thommo wasn't like every bowler out there. He towered over the others in this test. And during this same era there were many other bowlers who were playing Test cricket as seamers - Sarfraz Nawaz, who shuffled in like an old man trying to get his shopping done, Max Walker, whose action seemed to strangle his own pace, and Madan Lal, who could have out run the odd delivery in his follow-through. New Zealand had an endless supply of medium-pace.

Those bowlers barely exist anymore. Even bowlers like Tim Southee, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jason Holder are far quicker than them. And all three of those bowlers, at times, have been said to be not quick enough. In fact, Southee and Bhuvneshwar have put on extra pace just to survive. There was a time when you needed to bowl 90mph to be seen to bowl quick. We're now getting to the point where you need to bowl 90mph to get picked.

There might have been faster bowlers in the past, but there has never been a time with more fast bowlers.


Allrounders used to be slow first-change bowlers like Walker. The allrounders who bowl these days are Chris Morris, Ben Stokes, Mitch Marsh, Andre Russell, Tim Bresnan and Sean Abbott. None of these guys are slow. At their top speeds, they are fast-medium. Stokes and Russell are quicker than that.

When the helmet was invented there were probably only a handful of bowlers who could bowl at 90mph. Now there are probably at least 50, and that number will soon be 100.


The true evolution of fast bowling isn't the top speeds. Perhaps Thommo was the quickest, or maybe the fastest was from the Tait, Brett Lee and Akhtar era. But the true test of how much quicker bowling has become is how many people these days can bowl around 90mph.

England can pick from Steven Finn, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Liam Plunkett, Ben Stokes, Jake Ball and Chris Woakes as their first-choice seamers. Woakes was seen as too slow when he started. This summer he was clocking over 90mph. And if you're batting in county cricket you could be facing Stuart Meaker, Tony Roland-Jones, Mark Footit, Tymal Mills, Boyd Rankin, Jamie Overton, Matt Coles, Kyle Abbott, Fidel Edwards or Tino Best.

There was a time when Australia scared the cricket world with two proper quick bowlers in Thommo and Lillee. After that, West Indies dominated cricket with four quick bowlers for two generations. Now England regularly take in four bowlers who are around 90mph and it's barely commented on. South Africa could easily do the same. Even India, for years the laughing stock of fast bowling talent, have Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowling very quick. The days of New Zealand's army of military medium is well and truly over.

Even first-class teams often have multiple fast bowlers in their XIs now. When the helmet was invented there were probably only a handful of bowlers who could bowl at 90mph. Now there are probably at least 50, and that number will soon be 100.

That is not even mentioning the left-armers. Until Wasim Akram there had been one left-arm quick bowler with more than 150 Test wickets. Now they are everywhere. And as England and South Africa showed when facing Mitchell Johnson, it's a whole different set of skills needed to try and survive a physical attack from a left-arm bowler at top-end pace.

This is the natural evolution of cricket. Not individual bowlers being express, but many players bowling fast. And like rugby is struggling with the fact that their players are bigger and faster now, cricket's struggle is going to be with the fact there have never been as many bouncers bowled at this pace as there are right now.

That will mean more chances occurring of what happened to Hughes. And that is what the discussion has to be about.

Can we stop the ball going through the grill of the helmet? Is the heart in danger from being hit at 90mph? Are there proper concussion guidelines in place? With batsmen brought up wearing helmets getting hit more often, is CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) going to be a problem in cricket? Are the medical procedures adequate at international and first-class games? Is there a way we can ever protect the throat? And are the new neck protectors going to save a batsman?

These are the questions that scientists, doctors, cricketers, the ICC and helmet manufacturers should be working on together. At the moment, it seems like the helmet makers are trying to catch up, and while they are doing a good job, there is only so much money in selling a cricket helmet. The real money and help should come from within the cricket industry itself.

Perhaps the coroner's inquest was not the perfect place to talk about protecting cricketers as there was so much emotion around it. But we must now have this conversation. Cricket should have had a safety summit to try to make the game safer. The game owes it to Phil Hughes and to every player who picks up a bat.

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